Existing Laws, Technology Can Protect Our Privacy

Published April 6, 2012

Privacy is one of our most cherished values, especially in this increasingly connected world. There is no question that we all want to be able to protect ourselves from harms or intrusions into our lives by the government or marketers. Some argue for new, invasive laws and government mandates to protect our privacy. But why not use the laws and sophisticated technologies currently at our disposal to exercise our freedom to protect our privacy?

In January the Obama administration released its long-awaited proposal outlining a new role for the federal government in policing the Internet. The white paper, “Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Innovation in the Global Digital Economy,” calls for new privacy laws the administration says will enable people to keep their data safe without compromising the dynamic and growing online economy.

That is certainly a noble goal, but the reality behind the rhetoric deserves careful scrutiny.

Seeking Extensive New Regulations
Although couched in the soaring language of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, the administration’s white paper seeks extensive new government regulation of the Internet to address what Berin Szoka and Larry Downes, both of Tech Freedom, call “little more than the growing pains of a vibrant emerging economy.”

The white paper aims for government-driven accountability mandates and data-collection strictures—not to mention yet-to-be-developed “one touch, one click” technologies for controlling the use of personal information—that threaten to undermine a working and growing model for business on the Internet. Moreover, these proposed new laws could undermine the freedom that has long been the hallmark of the Internet by sharply limiting personal choice in the goods and services consumers can enjoy.

Limiting Consumer Choices
A study by NetChoice, a trade association representing e-commerce and Internet companies, estimates government-mandated privacy regulations could cost U.S. companies $33 billion over five years. To some of the administration’s allies this may seem inconsequential, but imposing this burden on businesses could have unintended consequences for everyone who values their choices online. Although large companies might be able to absorb these new regulatory and compliance costs, smaller companies and startups like the new and popular Web site Pinterest, one of the few bright spots in the economy, could be forced to shut down or flee the country, thereby limiting consumer choices.

American consumers are also deeply skeptical that more regulation of the Internet will help. In a recent Zogby poll commissioned by the National Taxpayers Union, 76 percent agreed that “[m]ore government involvement and regulation will make the Internet worse for consumers,” while only 8 percent believe regulation “will make the Internet better for consumers.”

Solutions Already Available
Ironically, much of what the administration hopes to achieve through the top-down approaches outlined in the white paper already is easily available to consumers. An entire body of law, from the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment to state consumer-protection laws, has been developed and proven to be effective in protecting consumers from wrongdoers.

Moreover, online companies understand consumers are concerned about their privacy. These companies have responded by providing sophisticated, easy-to-use tools to prevent tracking, block spam, or delete the list of Web pages visited. Upon a cursory glance at my Web-based email account, I can find a link called “Terms and Privacy.” A click on the link takes me to a page that lists the privacy policy, links to key terms, a link to contact the company with questions, and a link to tools where I can limit how my data is used.

A single click on my Facebook page reveals a similar menu of privacy controls. All it took for me to find the privacy notice and many options on Microsoft’s Bing search engine was to scroll to the bottom of the page. Google even has how-to videos showing you how to adjust yours privacy settings.

No Need for More Laws
Clearly, privacy control and information are literally at our fingertips, and they are there not because of a government mandate but because companies respond to consumer demands. Dynamic market forces have encouraged Internet-based firms to alter how they collect and use data and will continue to do so. Those who respond quickly to privacy concerns will earn loyalty, while those who don’t lose their customer base.

Before we spend another two years trying to enact invasive laws and regulations called for in a government white paper—that may do more harm than good while limiting users’ choices—let’s exercise our right to protect our privacy by using the many online and legal tools already at our fingertips.

John Stephenson ([email protected]) is director of the Communications and Technology Task Force at the American Legislative Exchange Council. Learn more at http://www.alec.org/.

Internet Info

“Estimate of U.S. Revenue Loss if Congress-Mandated Opt-in for Interest-Based Ads,” NetChoice, September 2011: http://www.netchoice.org/library/estimate-of-us-revenue-loss-if-congress-mandated-opt-in-for-interest-based-ads/

“As Government Probe of Online Companies Continues, Poll Shows Americans Highly Satisfied with Search Options, Skeptical of Regulation,” National Taxpayers Union, March 7, 2012: http://www.ntu.org/news-and-issues/27poll-by-overwhelming.html

“Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Innovation in the Global Digital Economy,” The White House, White Paper, January 2012: http://itlaw.wikia.com/wiki/Consumer_Data_Privacy_in_a_Networked_World:_A_Framework_for_Protecting_Privacy_and_Promoting_Innovation_in_the_Global_Digital_Economy