The online privacy movement has another guidepost. On Thursday, the Obama Administration released a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights for online users, including the ability for browser users to opt out of being tracked by advertisers and others.
The proposed document was described by the White House as "part of a comprehensive blueprint to improve consumers' privacy protections," while maintaining the Internet's growth and innovation. The Administration said the intent is to give users "more control over how their personal information is used on the Internet," and to help businesses grow while maintaining consumer trust.
'Right to Control'
The announcement, part of the Obama Administration's "We Can't Wait" effort, said that the U.S. Commerce Department will begin meeting with companies, privacy advocates, and other stakeholders to develop voluntary privacy policies based on the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. The Administration will also seek congressional approval to make the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights into law.
The full document, called Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy, is designed around four key elements. These are the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights itself, a "multi-stakeholder process" for determining how the Bill of Rights applies to specific businesses, enforcement, and interoperability with other countries and their businesses.
The key concept in the proposed Bill of Rights is that consumers have a "right to control what personal data companies collect from them, and how they use it." Related concepts include easy-to-understand and easy-to-access privacy and security practices, an expectation that companies will use collected data only for the uses cited when it was provided, security of personal data, access to one's own collected data, and "reasonable limits" for the collection and retention of data.
Browsers, Google Privacy
The proposed framework also encourages Congress to grant specific enforcement powers to the Federal Trade Commission.
The "do not track" option, which is conceptually similar to the FTC's "do not call" list for over-the-phone marketers, has been a goal of the FTC for more than a year. While it has not yet been implemented via law, agency rules, or voluntary compliance, it is beginning to make its way into browsers.
Microsoft's Internet Explorer 9, for instance, allows users to readily block tracking, and Mozilla's Firefox 10 has an option that requires ad networks to comply with users' choices about tracking.
But, absent some industrywide standards, the degree to which consumers are actually protected depends on who is making the assessment. Google, for instance, has released new privacy guidelines which are intended to go into effect March 1, and which the company says adds protections for consumers. However, some privacy advocates say the new guidelines mislead consumers and erode privacy.
The National Association of Attorneys General, for instance, recently wrote to Google that "the new policy forces consumers to allow information across all of Google's products to be shared without giving them the proper ability to opt out."
Brad Shimmin, an analyst with Current Analysis, said that the proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights "could set some standards," such as what "do not track" actually means. He also noted that, while browser safeguards are helpful, the issue of what happens to data on and between sites is also critical.
But, Shimmin pointed out, even with standards in place, "The central responsibility for privacy will still remain with the individual."