White House Asks Internet Companies to Follow Online Privacy Law, Even Though it hasn't Been Written Yet

By Beecher Tuttle February 23, 2012

In what amounts to a vague, difficult-to-enforce honor system, the White House on Thursday unveiled a new “Bill of Rights“ aimed at protecting users' privacy when online.

Calling it a “comprehensive blueprint” for future legislation, the White House is asking Internet companies to voluntarily adopt the bill and follow seven codes of conduct that are enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission. Essentially, the White House is asking Web firms like Google and Facebook to agree to future legislation – even though it hasn't been taken up by Congress – and open themselves up to FTC action if they fail to follow the mandates.

“American consumers can't wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” President Obama said. “As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy. That's why an online privacy Bill of Rights is so important.”

White House officials – and most analysts for that matter – believe that the vast majority of Internet companies will voluntarily agree to abide by the rules of conduct, mostly due to the public backlash that they will receive if they walk away from the Bill of Rights.

The more interesting question is whether the seven rights are actually enforceable. As you can see below, the rules look more like vague guidelines that would have difficulty holding up against a pack of high-priced tech lawyers.

  • Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.
  • Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.
  • Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.
  • Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.
  • Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.
  • Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.
  • Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

Phrases like “reasonable limits, “appropriate measures” and “easily understandable” are difficult to enforce, and probably won't put much fear in the hearts of Web companies use personal information as currency.

What Thursday's action does do is give notice to Internet companies that the White House will be pushing Congress to pass enforceable regulations in the coming months, so the time to get onboard is now.

“It's not the end, it may not be the beginning of the end, but it's a very important step forward,” Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, told CNN on a conference call.

The unveiling of the Bill of Rights comes one day after California scored a major win by inking a deal with the six largest mobile Web providers to create the first real privacy policy standards for mobile apps.

Under the new agreements, Amazon, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Research In Motion will be required to ensure that all mobile apps running on their platform that collect personal information have a privacy policy.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

TechZone360 Contributor

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