Government, Interest Groups Focus on Internet Privacy

Published December 28, 2009

Protecting online privacy has become one of the hottest topics in Washington as members of Congress, federal regulators, White House staffers, and the biggest Internet companies are offering proposals to balance security with commerce and freedom on the Web.

Facebook and Google recently updated their privacy policies in response to consumer complaints. Meanwhile, legislators from state capitals to Capitol Hill are crafting broad privacy legislation, and advocacy groups across the political spectrum are launching their own online privacy campaigns.

“The more we do online, the more digital footprints we leave behind.” said Nicole Ozer, technology and civil liberties policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “Once our personal information is collected, we don’t know how it will be used or abused.”

Google Under Fire
In a December interview with CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo, Google CEO Eric Schmidt suggested the first and primary responsibility for defending online privacy lies with the individual.

“Judgment is important,” Schmidt said. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

The comment caused quite a stir, and Schmidt also recently encountered the wrath of privacy advocates by prohibiting his company from putting its privacy policy directly and prominently on its homepage, which is a widely accepted industry standard.

Privacy advocates—including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation—even threatened to sue Google for violating California law because of its policy. Advocates got further infuriated when it took Google until September 2009 to release its privacy policy regarding Google Books.

Update to Law Sought
Most of these same groups, along with the ACLU, are centering their privacy efforts on “updating” the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which they say is inadequate in protecting citizens’ privacy in the digital age.

“Privacy law doesn’t auto-update, so we have to work together on an upgrade,” Ozer said.

U.S. Reps. Rick Boucher (D-VA), Cliff Stearns (R-FL), and Bobby Rush (D-IL) are all working on different privacy bills. The Federal Trade Commission held its first and long-awaited privacy roundtable December 7. And the Federal Communications Commission will address the issue in its national broadband recommendations due to Congress in February.

Ralph Benko, a Washington, DC-based political strategist and author of The Webster’s Dictionary: How to Use the Web to Transform the World, thinks the ACLU and other groups are impossible to please in this area.

“The inherently open architecture of the Web makes it almost impossible to create privacy without intrusive monitoring by the government which invites a much more sinister invasion of privacy,” Benko said. “Just ask an Iranian.”

Paying in Lost Privacy
Ozer, by contrast, believes Americans should start seeing the Internet as a zone riddled with hidden privacy “fees.”

“Many of these seemingly free online services come with a hidden fee—control over information about our private lives,” Ozer said. “No one should be forced to choose between using the Internet and keeping personal information from being misused.”

That principle also applies to government Web sites, says Christopher Calabrese, Counsel for the ACLU Technology and Liberty Project.He thinks Americans should be informed that their government is collecting information when they visit government Web sites.

“Americans rely on the information from the federal government to research politics, medical issues, and legal requirements,” Calabrese said. “No American should have to sacrifice privacy or risk surveillance in order to access free government information.”

Considers Price Worth Paying
Benko believes the Internet’s free flow of information is crucial to its success and instituting new regulations to stop privacy violations could harm the Internet’s vitality as an engine of creativity and networking. Benko doubts those regulations would work anyway.

“Always beware of a cure that could be worse than the disease,” he said. “And remember to think before you post or even tweet.”

Jim Harper, a telecommunications analyst at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC, agrees concerns about privacy are legitimate. But he does not think one-size-fits-all regulation will work in protecting Internet users’ privacy.

Consumer Power Noted
Harper also notes Internet users are pretty vocal about alleged infractions against their privacy and get companies to change their policies often.

“People are right to have concerns about privacy, but sites like Facebook exist to share personal information—serving people’s publicity interests, if you will,” Harper said. “Facebook users have not been shy about speaking forcefully to Facebook when they have an issue with the company’s practices.

“It happens to be a platform they can use to get organized,” he added. “Given the consumer power that’s implicit on the Internet—the competition is almost always just a mouse-click away—it’s hard to see how one-size-fits-all regulation would improve consumer welfare.”

Information Is Key
Harper hopes Google will become more open about how it uses the information it collects on its users. Google’s infractions are the ones primarily giving grief to privacy advocates, and their attempts to institute new regulations could threaten the Internet’s success.

“With other services like Google’s various products, it’s a little harder for average people to tell how information is used,” Harper said. “The biggest problem is making consumers aware of information use so they can make decisions for themselves.”

Thomas Cheplick ([email protected]) writes from Cambridge, Massachusetts.