White House releases 'privacy bill of rights': what it promises online consumers

While falling short of law, the consumer 'privacy bill of rights' would give consumers 'new legal and technical tools to safeguard their privacy,' according to the White House. 

Virginia Mayo/AP
The Google logo is seen at the Google headquarters in Brussels.

The White House Thursday unveiled its consumer "privacy bill of rights" – the long-anticipated guidelines on how companies should protect consumer information online.

The move comes amid heightened Internet privacy concerns including recent disclosures that personal data on mobile computing devices like smart phones are particularly vulnerable to tracking. Internet privacy advocates and states attorneys general have recently called for tightened Internet privacy provisions.

It appears the White House may have won a victory in getting influential companies, including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft, and AOL, to buy in to the plan. All have agreed to allow consumers to opt-out of online tracking. Companies that make the commitment could be subject to sanctions by the Federal Trade Commission for any violations.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” said President Obama in a statement. “As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy." 

While falling short of law, the voluntary measures were described as a step in that direction and would give consumers "new legal and technical tools to safeguard their privacy," according to a White House statement. 

The document outlines seven rights all consumers should have and the White House says it will work with Congress to pass legislation in these areas:

  • Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.
  • Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.
  • Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.
  • Security: Consumers have a right to expect their data will be stored and transmitted securely. 
  • Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.
  • Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.
  • Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

The Digital Advertising Alliance, an online advertising consortium whose members include Google, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and others, announced Thursday that it would add features to browsers that would let consumers modify their preferences on how their data would be used. The group also pledged within nine months to create a feature for web browsers that lets consumers choose a "do-not-track" option.

That latter measure was a big step in the right direction for privacy advocates.

"For five years Center for Democracy and Technology has pushed for the development of a reliable 'Do Not Track' mechanism; today's Digital Advertising Alliance announcement is an important step toward making 'Do Not Track' a reality for consumers," said Justin Brookman, the center's director of consumer privacy in a statement. "The industry deserves credit for this commitment, though the details of exactly what 'Do Not Track' means still need to be worked out," he added.

The White House move also comes as states attorneys general begin a concerted push for new measures to restrict the tracking and collection of private data. Attorneys general from 36 states and territories sent a letter Feb. 22 to Google president Larry Page raising questions about the company's plan to consolidate user data beginning March 1.

"The new policy forces consumers to allow information across all of these products to be shared, without giving them the ability to opt out," the letter said. The letter continued: "This invasion of privacy is virtually impossible to escape for the nation's Android-powered smartphone users, who comprise nearly 50 percent of the national smartphone market."

Just last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed suit to force the Federal Trade Commission to require Google "to honor its previous commitments" to Google users. But Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, was pleased with the White House move.

The do-not-track option, he told Reuters, was "the clearest articulation of the right to privacy by a U.S. president in history."

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