White House privacy push: Some question the details

Some privacy groups question the plan to allow online companies to participate in writing new codes of conduct

The U.S. White House's announcement Thursday that it will encourage online businesses to develop and adopt privacy codes of conduct and push Congress for privacy legislation received mostly positive reviews, although some privacy advocates questioned whether companies would be too involved in writing the rules.

On the other side of the debate, some free-market proponents raised concerns that new online privacy rules would embolden U.S. policymakers to further regulate the Internet.

"No matter how well-intentioned, a privacy police force isn't likely to work -- at least not without continuous governmental interventions to try to put the digital genie back in its bottle," said Adam Thierer, a scholar at the George Mason University Mercatus Center and a longtime opponent of Internet regulations. "Such efforts will be costly, increasingly intrusive, and likely to open the door to many other forms of Internet regulation."

Increased privacy regulation could lead to higher prices for online services now supported by behavioral advertising, he added. "Most consumers gladly accept this deal that keeps the digital goodies flowing. But they won't likely have as many online choices if a new regulatory regime steps in and slays the goose that lays the Internet's free golden eggs."

The White House will push for a privacy bill of rights for online users, including a right to turn off Web tracking and a right to access and correct personal information held by online companies, said officials with President Barack Obama's administration.

Also on Thursday, the Digital Advertising Alliance (DAA), a coalition of U.S. media and marketing trade associations, committed to honoring do-not-track requests made by Web users through their browsers. Most major browsers now offer do-not-track options, but compliance with the requests has been uneven.

As part of the privacy push, the U.S. Department of Commerce will convene meetings of privacy advocates, online companies, academics and other experts to draft privacy codes of conduct, officials said.

The Center for Digital Democracy will work with the agency in these so-called multi-stakeholder negotiations, but the group has concerns about how the privacy codes will be developed, said Jeffrey Chester, CDD's executive director. Without new privacy legislation, "some progress must be made to protect consumers," Chester said. "Increasingly, consumers face a daily whirlwind of data collection, confronting a vast and largely uncontrollable apparatus that tracks their every move."

Chester applauded the privacy bill of rights, but cautioned against the plan's reliance on voluntary codes of conduct "to be negotiated between consumer groups and companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo and others."

Consumer groups will "engage in these negotiations in good faith," he said. "But we cannot accept any deal that doesn't really protect consumers, and merely allows the data-profiling status quo to remain. Instead of negotiations, CDD would have preferred the White House to introduce new legislation that clearly protected consumers online."

Several tech groups praised the White House privacy plans and the DAA's do-not-track commitment. The call for a privacy bill of rights comes at a "pivotal time when there is a tremendous concern among consumers about their personal information," Leslie Harris, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said in an email.

CDT called the do-not-track commitment from DAA an important step for consumers.

The American Civil Liberties Union applauded the Obama administration for making online privacy a priority, and the Software and Information Industry Association, a trade group, called the focus on voluntary privacy standards a "forward-looking, effective approach to improving privacy."

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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