NEWS ANALYSIS: A new White House plan puts enforcement of consumer privacy issues on the Internet into the hands of the FTC. It's not enough.
White House announcement on Feb. 23 that the
Obama administration is going to start pressing for a consumers' Bill of Rights
was welcomed by privacy advocates, but others question whether the effort will
lead to any important changes. Running the administration's effort is the
Federal Trade Commission, which is also responsible for enforcing the "Do
Not Call" bills implemented in the past decade. The
White House plan would, among other things, ensure that "Do Not
Track" settings on browsers would be honored.
worth noting that Do Not Call is honored as much in the breach as it is in the
law. Telemarketers routinely ignore the Do Not Call list and avoid getting
caught by concealing their identities with spoofed Caller ID entries, or by calling
from outside the United States where the law doesn't apply. The FTC, meanwhile,
only rarely brings charges against violators of Do Not Call. Whether this
overworked and underfunded agency could enforce a privacy Bill of Rights is an
the White House has put a great deal of effort into the
Consumers' Privacy Bill of Rights, it has a long way to go before this idea
becomes law, assuming it ever does. The next step will come from the National
Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), which will go through
the usual round of regulatory meetings to establish specific codes of conduct.
In addition, the administration will present legislation to Congress to
implement the effort and to provide baseline protections. It's unclear whether
a Republican-led House of Representatives will even take up such a bill, much
less pass it in its current form.
fact there's a lot that's unclear. While the document presented by the White
House shows a lot of thought, turning that thought into legislation is a
significant undertaking, especially in an election year when nobody knows for
sure who will control either house of Congress or, for that matter, the White
House. So as nice as the idea is, don't hold your breath for this to take
to the depths of the morass that is privacy on the Internet is the fact that
some organizations, such as Google, are effectively integrated from top to
bottom. Even if you don't let Google share personal information with others
outside of the company, that's not exactly a major restriction. After all,
anything that passes through your Android phone or that you search for on
Google's search engine or is paid for through Google Wallet can enter the vast
collection of data at Google, and even if the law takes effect, there's not
much anyone can do about that, except maybe hope for a sense of responsibility
while Google's unofficial motto is "Don't be Evil," it's not clear
that Google would see such information use as evil. After all, the company
undoubtedly believes that it's doing consumers a favor by making commerce
easier and providing information on things a person might want to know, or want
of course, there are loopholes. The federal government isn't bound by anything
in the Privacy Bill of Rights, so the feds can snoop through anything you've
done online at their whim and without a warrant.
ultimately the question is whether the president's plan will actually result in
greater privacy for U.S. citizens. Considering the obstacles in the way, I
suspect not. Even if the White House were to produce legislation that Congress
were to pass, implementing the bill at the FTC would be a nightmare. Getting
the administrative procedures into place could take years, and during this time
there is certain to be a change of administrations, and with it a change in
reality, the only hope for consumer online privacy, and Do Not Track for that
matter, is voluntary industry compliance. Browsers are already showing up with
the ability to turn on a Do Not Track request. Recently, Google announced that
it is putting a "Do Not Track" button on its Chrome browser.
it was Google that found a way to get past Apple's privacy settings and find a
way to put ad cookies on Safari browsers against users' wishes. Meanwhile,
major Internet sites including Google, Microsoft and Yahoo all say they'll
honor Do Not Track. But will they?
answer is, not if they don't have to. Just because the White House wants
consumer privacy protection on the Internet isn't a good enough reason.
Likewise, a bill in Congress might get lip service, but no real action. Perhaps
a law, and the ability of the FTC to enforce it, might have some effect, but
probably not very much.
now the Internet is a lot like the Wild West. There's not a lot of law there,
and lawbreakers are almost impossible to find. Worse, even if they're found,
bringing them to justice is problematic. The only real answer to protecting
consumers' privacy rights on the Internet is for the consumers to do it
themselves. Good luck with that.
Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.
He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.