Privacy push could get pushback

Obama administration rumored to be considering new privacy czar, online regulations

Online privacy, always a touchy subject when so many people are networking and shopping via the Internet, is about to become a political football.

According to Julia Angwin at the Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration is poised to name a so-called privacy czar who will take the lead on strengthening online privacy protections. A forthcoming report from the Commerce Department outlines the administration’s proposals, which could include new legislation, the Journal reports.

It’s not altogether surprising, particularly given some recent high-profile privacy mishaps, writes Jacqui Cheng at Ars Technica.

For example, some popular Facebook apps apparently have been providing user data to outside commercial parties, according to the Journal. And Google has gotten heat for collecting user data from unprotected Wi-Fi networks through its Street View cars.

“Crackdowns on some of these issues have been led by countries with more aggressive privacy laws, with the Federal Trade Commission lagging behind, which the [Wall Street Journal's] sources indicate is the purpose of the new initiative: to bring the U.S. up-to-speed," Cheng writes.

Until now, FTC was lagging behind by choice, at least in part. Rather than dictate data collection practices, the commission has focused on identifying bad actors and encouraging the marketing industry to police itself, writes Steve Smith at MediaPost.com’s "Behavioral Insider" blog.

“If the report proves true, then this puts the debates over online privacy at a whole new level,” Smith writes.

However, the administration’s plans for more active involvement could run afoul of the soon-to-be-Republican-controlled House. That is not to say Republicans are against privacy, but they are wary of existing enforcement mechanisms.

“While Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have expressed general support for privacy, they are unlikely to support expanding the regulatory purview of the agencies most likely to be in charge of enforcing new privacy rules, such as the Federal Trade Commission,” writes Joe Mullin at paidContent.org.

In some cases, reaction to the news took an Orwellian slant, except instead of people worrying about Big Brother watching them, they were concerned about Big Brother stopping other people from watching them.

It is “somewhat ironic to think that an increase in government monitoring and policing of online activities will do anything to increase privacy for consumers,” writes a blogger at Infosec Island. “As a free society, we need to be careful about empowering federal bureaucracies in order to preserve individual freedoms.”

About the Author

Technology journalist Michael Hardy is a former FCW editor.

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