White House pushes online privacy bill of rights

@CNNMoneyTech February 23, 2012: 11:43 AM ET
A series of online privacy debacles has Washington stepping up its oversight with an online privacy bill of rights.

A series of online privacy debacles has Washington stepping up its oversight.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- The Obama administration on Thursday unveiled a new online bill of rights intended to protect consumers' privacy when they surf the Web.

The policy lays out a set of guidelines for Internet companies about how they should treat consumers' data and manage their customer interactions. It stresses transparency, security, and user control of their data. (Click here to read the privacy bill of rights in its entirety).

The bill is a splashy gesture, but it's also pretty toothless.

The document is stuffed with vague rules such as: "Companies should offer consumers clear and simple choices, presented at times and in ways that enable consumers to make meaningful decisions."

The White House admitted that its framework is fairly lightweight. It would like Congress to step up and lay down stricter mandates about what companies can do with their customers' data, but that's not going to happen any time soon.

In the meantime, the White House cast its bill of rights as a "comprehensive blueprint" for future legislation.

"It's not the end, it may not be the beginning of the end, but it's a very important step forward," Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, said on a conference call with the media held Wednesday evening.

The bill of rights is voluntary, though Leibowitz and Commerce Secretary John Bryson said they believe that corporations will be compelled to sign up as an illustration of their good faith.

For those that enroll, the FTC can enforce the bill's provisions by taking punitive actions against violators.

Bryson said the administration chose to act now because of a rapid increase in online fraud and in customers' confusion about how and when they're being tracked. The White House first called for the bill of rights a year ago, but little progress had been made until now.

"We need this now," Bryson said. "It cannot wait."

Alongside the privacy bill of rights' rollout, the Digital Advertising Alliance, a consortium of advertising networks, also announced Thursday that it is working to enhance its "Do Not Track" technology for most major Web browsers.

DAA represents about 90% of online advertisers, including those in Google (GOOG, Fortune 500), Yahoo (YHOO, Fortune 500), Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and AOL's (AOL) ad networks.

For more than a year, those advertisers have allowed users to opt out of online tracking by installing a special cookie on their computer.

But administration officials said the current Do Not Track process is confusing and complicated.

As a result, the alliance said Thursday that it will push for a simple "Do Not Track" browser button. Clicking on it would opt a consumer out of data collection from participating advertisers across all websites. Like the privacy bill of rights, Do Not Track will be enforceable by the FTC.

The announcements come on the heels of a recent string of online privacy debacles.

Path, Twitter and scores of other mobile phone apps were recently found to be uploading entire address books to their servers without permission. In December, handset makers were caught installing secret software that could potentially record keystrokes. Last week, Google was caught red-handed violating Safari's privacy settings.

Facebook, Google, and Twitter have all settled with the FTC over past privacy violations, and are under orders to tread carefully to avoid future ones.  To top of page

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