White House online privacy policy raises questions

While the online privacy initiatives announced by the White House and separately by digital industry members are being viewed as positive steps, questions also are being raised on whether the voluntary safeguards are strong enough.

Skeptics are asking whether the White House’s Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights announced on Feb. 23, and the “Do Not Track” initiative by Google, Yahoo and other digital marketing brands, would be effective enough. The plans were announced separately, but are viewed as sharing similar goals.

Critics also wonder if the voluntary measures might undermine the possibility of more stringent privacy safeguards being developed in Europe and globally.

The White House policy framework does not appear to have any immediate implications for federal agency websites and their own data collection and usage, but shifts in expectations about online privacy eventually could affect how federal agencies collect and use consumer data. In addition, the White House's approach of relying on voluntary industry cooperation for Internet privacy protection possibly may offer a road map for handling other digital technology issues affecting both consumers and federal agencies, such as online identity management.

The Obama Administration said it released the privacy blueprint to guide future efforts by the Commerce Department to work with companies, privacy advocates and other stakeholders to develop and implement privacy policies for online information. The administration also said it would work with Congress on privacy legislation.

“A Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights based on Fair Information Practice Principles is significant,” said John Simpson, privacy project director for Consumer Watchdog, another consumer organization. “Enforceable codes of conduct could matter. Baseline privacy legislation could make a difference.

“The real question is how much influence companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook will have in their inevitable attempt to water down the rules that are implemented and render them essentially meaningless,” he added. “I am skeptical about the 'multi-stakeholder process', but am willing to make a good faith effort to try.”

In addition, the Digital Advertising Alliance made up of major Internet companies including Google, Yahoo! And Microsoft announced they have agreed to adopt “Do Not Track” technology on their own. Their official commitment would be subject to Federal Trade Commission enforcement.

“As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy. That’s why an online privacy Bill of Rights is so important,” President Barack Obama said in a news release.

The White House’s privacy bill of rights includes provisions for companies to respect the context in which consumers provide information, to securely handle consumers’ information and to provide access for consumers to view and correct their own information. Consumers would have a right to set limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

However, the new framework largely depends on voluntary codes of conduct, to be negotiated between consumer groups and companies such as Google and Facebook, the digital democracy group said.

The risk is that the final deal may be mostly status quo. “Instead of negotiations, Center for Digital Democracy would have preferred the White House to introduce new legislation that clearly protected consumers online,” the group said.

The watchdog group also said it is concerned that the administration’s privacy plan may undermine the European Union’s more stringent approach to online privacy.

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