PrivacyThe amount of data now collected by companies about their customers is alarming to many. Their unease lies in the collection of information like surfing habits, physical location, and preferences from other websites, data which is often shared with marketing companies.

Last week, the Commerce Department outlined a proposal for creating an online “privacy bill of rights” in a 70-page report entitled “Internet Policy Task Force Privacy Green Paper.” Joelle Tessler, technology writer for the Associated Press, explains:

The new report proposes the creation of a voluntary, but enforceable industry code of conduct to ensure that companies give consumers clear notice about what data is being collected and exactly how it is being used. It would give consumers the opportunity to ‘opt out’ of, or decline, some or all of that data collection. Consumers would also get the ability to correct errors in the information. The code would also set clearer limits on the use of this information and would require companies to secure the data they gather.

The proposal would also create a dedicated privacy office within the Commerce Department, and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) would then enforce the rules — but only with those entities who voluntarily agreed to oblige to begin with. Doug Aamoth, a blogger for Techland, points out one flaw with this approach:

[S]everal of the popular free websites and services on the internet are free because they sell non-identifying user data and surfing habits to marketing companies. […I]f everyone opts out, we’re all going to have to start paying for Facebook and Gmail and a lot of the other things we’ve been using for free all these years. They’re not just supported by display advertising — our surfing habits are being sold, too.

You can have free or you can have not free, but both cost something online.

Earlier this month, the FTC made its own recommendations for online privacy, including a universal “do not track” mechanism to give consumers control over their own data. This mechanism would cause “significant economic harm” to the online advertising industry, according to Mike Zaneis, the senior vice president and general counsel of the Interactive Advertising Bureau. FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz said, “Our main concern is the sites and services that are connecting the dots between different times and places that a consumer is online and building a profile of what a consumer is doing.”

It will be interesting to see how things pan out regarding the recommendations from the FTC and the Commerce Department.

Source: “New report calls for online privacy bill of rights,” Associated Press, 12/16/10
Source: “Commerce Department Pushes for Online Privacy Bill of Rights,” Techland, 12/16/10
Source: “F.T.C. Backs Plan to Honor Privacy of Online Users,” The New York Times, 12/01/10
Image by Rob Pongsajapan, used under its Creative Commons license.

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