Public wants online privacy rules, US official says

There's a growing concern about online privacy, even as consumers share more data, an NTIA official says

By , IDG News Service |  Government

U.S. Web users are increasingly asking for tougher online privacy protections, even as they give more and more of their personal data to websites, and Internet-based companies are asking for certainty about privacy rules from U.S. regulators even as they also ask for flexibility to create new products, a U.S. official said Monday.

There are several challenges and paradoxes to deal with as U.S. lawmakers and agencies examine ways to strengthen online privacy laws, said Daniel Weitzner, associate administrator in the Office of Policy Analysis and Development at the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

The U.S. has "robust" privacy rules for some industries, but there's a growing call for baseline privacy rules, Weitzner said during an online privacy forum sponsored by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation and the Technology Policy Institute (TPI), two Washington, D.C., think tanks. The NTIA and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Commerce, began considering the policy options for online privacy about a year ago, but they haven't issued a formal position on whether additional rules are needed.

The agency has heard from both consumers and online companies while it examines online privacy policy, he said. "People won't want to feel that they're out there completely unprotected," Weitzner said. "The fact that consumers are asking for a greater sense of urgency shouldn't come as a surprise."

There's little agreement over what new privacy rules should look like, however, Weitzner said. There are examples of older privacy laws that have worked, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which encourages consumers to share their data but protects them from misuse, he said.

Other speakers questioned the need for tougher rules. There have been few studies about the potential impact that new privacy rules would have on the online advertising market, particularly behavioral advertising, said Thomas Lenard, president of TPI, a think tank favoring free market approaches.

Behavioral advertising, which targets Web users based on their surfing history, can bring in more money for online news and other sites than untargeted ads, Lenard said.

"We really need a lot more information before we're going to be able to come to an informed judgment," he said. "Right now, we're operating pretty much in an empirical vacuum."

Many people worried about online privacy also misunderstand how it is collected and used, Lenard added. In many cases, humans never see the personal data collected by websites or advertising networks, he said. "To [the] extent that information is known, it's known by computers and not individuals," he said.

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