Obama calls for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights

By Byron Acohido, USA TODAY, 23FEB2012, P1B

The White House on Wednesday unveiled a strongly worded “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights’’ as the linchpin for a drive to get Congress to pass new laws protecting consumers privacy as they surf the Internet.

The announcement came as Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and attorneys general from 35 other states sent a letter to Google complaining about a new privacy policy which will give the search giant greater latitude to track people using computers and mobile devices, with no way to opt out of being tracked.

One of the seven privacy rights, unveiled at a press conference by Commerce Secretary John Bryson guarantees consumers the “right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.”

The Commerce Department will now commence a series of meetings inviting privacy advocates, consumer groups and key players in the tech and online advertising industries to hash out “enforceable privacy policies,” Bryson said.

In a statement, President Obama said, “American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online. As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy. “

Meanwhile, the Digital Advertising Alliance an industry trade group, announced it has begun work on a more visible and effective Do Not Track mechanism to add to a self-policing system in effect for all of the consortium’s members. The Federal Trade Commission separately has backed a call for a Do Not Track system buttressed by new federal laws.

Daniel Weitzner, the White House deputy chief technical officer, said the Obama Administration’s goal is to get Congress to draft and pass new privacy laws using the privacy bill of rights as a framework.

“We now have a much more focused blueprint” Weitzner said. “We’ll use our bully pulpit to get legislation passed based on these principals.”

The push comes as Google, Facebook and Apple have come under fire from some members of Congress and the FTC for tracking consumers as they use their PCs and mobile devices on the Internet, often without asking permission.

The Attorney Generals are seeking a delay is implementation of Google’s new privacy policy — which is set to take full effect  on March 1. The AGs now join several members of Congress and numerous privacy advocates and consumer group in protesting the fact that anyone who uses multiple Google services can not opt out of the new policy, which makes it easier for Google to cross reference activities across its most popular services, including search, Gmail, Google Apps, YouTube, Picasa and Google+.

The Obama administration recognizes that “we need to make meaningful changes to preserve consumer trust and confidence,” says Craig Spiezle, executive director of the non-profit Online Trust Association. “At the same time, we need to preserve innovation. Balancing the two is a challenge.”

Getting a divided Congress to pass any hard-edged privacy legislation is another challenge.

“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,” says John Simpson, spokesman for Consumer Watchdog. ” I am skeptical about the ‘multi-stakeholder process’, but am willing to make a good faith effort to try it.

Simpson and others remain concerned about the Commerce Department’s role in shaping consumer privacy protections. ” Commerce’s job — quite correctly — is to promote the interests of business, not protect consumers,” he says. “If nothing else, the report demonstrates the growing concern about online privacy. Perhaps this is one of the few issues where true bipartisan action will be possible this year.”

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