The White House Releases a Blueprint for Privacy in the Information Age

The Obama administration has released details of a consumer-privacy strategy to help protect users online. Dubbed the “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights”, it is being positioned as a blueprint for privacy in the information age. Key elements include clear guidance on what consumers should expect from those who handle their personal information, and a set of expectations for companies that process and use that personal data.

“Never has privacy been more important than today, in the age of the Internet, the World Wide Web and smart phones,” Pres. Barack Obama wrote in a cover letter for the report. “In just the last decade, the Internet has enabled a renewal of direct political engagement by citizens around the globe and an explosion of commerce and innovation creating jobs of the future. Much of this innovation is enabled by novel uses of personal information. So, it is incumbent on us to do what we have done throughout history: apply our timeless privacy values to the new technologies and circumstances of our times.”

In specific terms the proposals calls for:

Individual Control
Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it.

Consumers have a right to easily understandable and accessible information about privacy and security practices.

Respect for Context
Consumers have a right to expect that companies will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

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 is inaccurate.

Focused Collection
Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

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.

Probably the most powerful of the provisions is the right of Individual Control. The report says that companies should provide consumers appropriate control over the personal data that consumers share with others and over how companies collect, use, or disclose personal data. With the recent scandals about how much data companies like Facebook and Google collect about their users, the ability to be able to opt-out or at least exercise some form of control is long over due. In talking about individual control the report says that “companies should enable these choices by providing consumers with easily used and accessible mechanisms that reflect the scale, scope, and sensitivity of the personal data that they collect.” Additionally, the report says, “companies should offer consumers clear and simple choices, presented at times and in ways that enable consumers to make meaningful decisions about personal data collection.” With regards to opt-outs, something sorely missing from Google’s recent privacy policy changes,  companies should offer consumers means to withdraw or limit consent that are as accessible and easily used as the methods for granting consent in the first place.

It isn’t clear if this privacy bill of rights will ever make its way into law. The report repeatedly uses phrases like “encourage stakeholders”, “codes of conduct” and “discretion in how [to] implement them.” However there is hope as the text does mention working “with Congress to enact these rights through legislation,” while Obama wrote “my Administration will work to advance these principles and work with Congress to put them into law.” The report does also recognize the need for FTC enforcement to ensure that responsible companies are not disadvantaged by competitors who play by different rules.

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