Internet Privacy: Protecting Consumers, Building Trust, Creating Jobs

Yesterday, the White House announced two important steps to promote consumer privacy rights online and to give users more control over how their personal information is handled.  First, the White House released a comprehensive roadmap for online privacy protection centered on a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and robust enforcement by the Federal Trade Commission.  Second, industry has stepped up to the plate by promising to use the "Do Not Track" technology in most major Web browsers to make it easier for users to opt out of receiving ads targeted to them based on their web-surfing habits.

Trust is essential to the continued flourishing of our information economy.  With every passing year, we carry out more of our professional and personal lives through the Internet, mobile devices, and other networked technologies.  The Internet and mobile telecommunications devices also play a growing role in our economy, as consumers increasingly engage in e-commerce, and more and more products and services become digitized and available online.  Last year, online retail sales totaled approximately $200 billion.  Because of the power of the Internet, a single innovative idea can quickly grow into a product or service available anywhere in the world.  And American companies continue to lead the way in providing these technologies, fueling our export economy and creating high-paying and fulfilling jobs for Americans. 

Consumers need to have confidence that companies will handle information about them fairly and responsibly, and that they will have appropriate control over how information about them is used.  When consumers provide information about themselves online, they reasonably expect companies to treat this information with respect and to honor certain baseline standards of privacy protection.  At the same time, companies need to feel that the rules that apply to them are fair, transparent, predictable, and uniform.  Commercial data privacy protections are therefore crucial both for consumer protection and economic growth.  The White House report emphasizes:

  • Individual control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it
  • Transparency that allows consumers to easily understand information about privacy and security practices
  • Respect for the context in which consumers provide data
  • Security and responsibility in the way companies handle personal data
  • Access to personal data in usable format and an ability to correct errors
  • Reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain
  • Accountability as to how companies handle personal data

The President has called on Congress to pass legislation that codifies the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and applies it to commercial sectors that are not subject to existing Federal data privacy laws.  We have also called on Congress to confirm the President’s nominees to the Privacy & Civil Liberties Oversight Board, so that it can start its important work.  But we can’t wait for Congress to act.  The Commerce Department will start right away to convene discussions among companies, privacy advocates, international partners, State Attorneys General, Federal criminal and civil law enforcement representatives, and academics — to develop codes of conduct that implement the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.  Such practices, when expressly adopted by companies subject to FTC jurisdiction, will be legally enforceable.  Building on our Internet Policymaking Principles, we will also engage with our international partners to create greater interoperability among our respective privacy frameworks.

As President Obama has said “One thing should be clear, even though we live in a world in which we share personal information more freely than in the past, we must reject the conclusion that privacy is an outmoded value. It has been at the heart of our democracy from its inception, and we need it now more than ever.”

Quentin Palfrey is Senior Advisor for Jobs & Competitiveness in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy

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