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Obama Unveils Privacy Bill of Rights

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The Obama administration unveiled a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” at a White House event Thursday morning, making the case that values such as transparency, security and accuracy should guide companies as they collect and use data about consumers.

The announcement is one more step in a years-long effort by the administration to create a simple and clear way for consumers to decide whether and how they want their online activities to be tracked. The effort includes major industry players like Google and Facebook, consumer advocates and technology researchers, who are trying to build a framework of rules and regulation that would protect consumers’ privacy without squelching the growth of new technologies.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” President Obama said in a press release. “For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure.”

While Obama did not appear at Thursday’s gathering in the White House, the meeting did attract important players in the consumer privacy world, including FTC Commissioner Jon Liebowitz, Commerce Secretary John Bryson, and the leaders of the Digital Advertising Alliance and Consumers Union, according to Adam Levin, Credit.com’s founder, who attended the meeting.

The prominence of the attendees, and the full-court media press by the White House, signifies a change in attitudes regarding consumer privacy, Levin says.

“It’s a recognition of personal identification data as an important asset,” says Levin. “This is an attempt to approach the issue collaboratively and not adversarially.”

The administration’s privacy bill of rights, and the accompanying report, combines and simplifies proposals advanced in recent years by various reports and studies by the Federal Trade Commission. From there, the administration proposes a two-track process for improving consumer privacy protections.

One track involves a negotiation between government, industry and consumer groups to determine a voluntary code of conduct for companies to follow regarding what information to collect, how they use it, how they check it for accuracy, and how they keep it secure. The code of conduct also would include a process of self-regulation for companies to prove they are following the guidelines.

“As we know, self-regulation hasn’t worked before,” Levin says. “Maybe it will work this time, but companies need to know that if you violate my trust, you will be hammered.”

The second track of the process would include increased enforcement of existing privacy rules by the FTC. In its report, the Administration also suggests that Congress may need to pass new laws giving the FTC and state attorneys general more power to enforce privacy rules.

“By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates and policymakers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth,” Obama said in a prepared statement.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association for online marketers and data aggregators, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment, though they did post a message from IAB President & CEO Randall Rothenberg on their website, which included the following: “Today marks not the end of a journey, but the beginning of an important collaboration among government, business, and consumer organizations to assure that the free Internet—the most vibrant, diverse and decentralized medium ever created—can continue to flourish, in the United States and around the world. Central to the value proposition of the Internet is trust. Consumers must trust that their personal data will be kept private and secure, as they surf the Web aboard myriad devices seeking news, services, and entertainment tailored to their very personal interests.”

Advocacy groups including Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America and others characterized the administration’s event and report as good first steps, but said in prepared statements that they worry about follow-through.

“(T)he new framework largely depends on the development of voluntary codes of conduct, to be negotiated between consumer groups and companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo,” the Center for Digital Democracy said in a prepared statement. “Consumers groups, such as CDD, will engage in these negotiations in good faith. But we cannot accept any ‘deal’ that doesn’t really protect consumers, and merely allows the data-profiling status quo to remain.”

Image: White House

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