White House privacy rights bill is a beginning, not an end

Free at last? Not exactly. A consumer privacy bill of rights is long overdue, but anything real will require Congressional action -- an oxymoron if ever there was one.

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To which I say: About damned time. Good for the White House for saying it, good for us if it really happens. And that’s the rub. This is just a blueprint. It’s no more real today than it was yesterday at this time.

Here are some of the problems the White House “framework for protecting privacy and promoting innovation” [PDF] does not solve. 

* Companies don’t actually have to follow the rules if they don’t want to. Per the blueprint:

“Private sector participation will be voluntary and companies ultimately will choose whether to adopt a given code of conduct.”

The Digital Advertising Alliance – the ad industry trade group that has been desperately trying to fend off Federal legislation of online tracking – has endorsed this plan. If you want to be a member in good standing of the DAA, you’ll have to follow the rules. That’s good. If you don’t, there’s nothing stopping you from continuing to operate as you please.

Of the nearly 800 tracking companies in Evidon’s database, 147 belong to the DAA. Many others belong to other industry groups, who presumably would also abide by the same principles. But hundreds of companies don’t belong to any. What happens to them?

* The FTC will play bad cop to enforce the rules, but only if Congress passes legislation empowering them to do so.

“As part of consumer data privacy legislation, the Administration encourages Congress to provide the FTC (and State Attorneys General) with specific authority to enforce the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.”

In other words, this is all moot without Congressional action – an oxymoron if there ever was one, and never moreso than in an election year.

[Update: A reader points out that the FTC already enforces rules forbidding alleged deception committed by advertising networks, as it did when it sanctioned Chitika last May and ScanScout (now Tremor Video) in December for providing bogus opt outs. But enforcing this Bill of Rights specifically will require intervention by Congress.] 

* The Internet does not end at US borders. Many tracking companies are not based in the US, and don’t have much to worry about from the FTC or state attorneys general. And while the framework states a worthy goal of “global interoperability,” getting there may be about as difficult as solving the debt crisis.

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