Friday, February 24, 2012

Obama's Internet Bill of Rights - Publicity Stunt or a Victory for Privacy Advocates?

In response to widespread criticism of internet giants' Google, Facebook, Yahoo, etc tracking of user information, the government released a set of guidelines it is calling an "Internet Bill of Rights". These guidelines set out to strike a balance between protecting the privacy of consumers on the web from excessive tracking by advertisers and allowing the lucrative internet advertising business to flourish and provide the numerous free web services that rely on advertising as their source of revenue. To this end, this new regulation is currently simply a voluntary agreement between the largest online advertising companies (Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, AOL), which represent ~90% of behavioral advertising, to implement the provisions of the bill. At the moment, the most noticeable change that will occur is that all major web browsers will add, or enhance the functionality of, a "Do Not Track" feature that will signal the web advertisers that a user wishes to opt-out of behavioral advertising, as well as features allowing users to control how their tracking information is used. These new features are a major turnaround for Google, who has stated numerous times that they do not support these kinds of browser-enforced privacy measures.

Naturally, there are widespread criticisms of this new bill, ranging from paranoid crackpot rambling about secret government conspiracies to take over the internet[4], to legitimate concerns regarding the enforceability of this act[2]. At the moment, the main provision of the bill, the "Do Not Track" feature, relies on the very vague clause 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."[1] As there is no standardized definition of "appropriate", privacy advocate groups have criticized the bill for being too arbitrary and unenforceable. To address such concerns, the Department of Commerce has announced that in the coming weeks it will meet with representatives of the major internet advertisers to develop a code of conduct clarifying exactly what "appropriate" means. Simultaneously, this bill will serve as a template for future legislation that will attempt to make the privacy regulation legally binding.

Overall, this measure has been praised by online privacy groups such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Center for Digital Democracy. Given that the Digital Advertising Alliance, the major industry group, fully supports this act, it is likely that it will actually be implemented. The major question to ask is then why would major advertising networks that depend on tracking for their livelihood support such a measure? A number of articles point to the fact that every provision of this bill already exists in some form, and the real issue that very few people actually take the time to "opt-out" from tracking. In this light, this new bill is nothing more than an industry publicity move aimed at calming the recent outcry for internet privacy. I have to disagree with such a negative assessment. It is true that this bill is unlikely to do away with behavioral tracking on the internet, which contrary to the public sentiment, is a good thing. The internet provides an enormous number of very useful services free-of-charge thanks to its ability to target users with ads they might actually be interested in. At the same time, this bill sets an industry rule-of-thumb for the proper use of information gathered online.[2] Just as the "do not call" registry did a great service to many of us in reducing annoying telemarketing without fully eliminating the practice, this bill has the potential to set the industry norm in a very acceptable medium both for internet advertisers and consumers. Enforcing true internet privacy would require a sacrifice of the open internet, which is not something most of us would support, so the next best thing we can ask for is exactly such a good faith agreement of the major players to not abuse the information power they wield.

And really, this is a measure opposed by the Heartland Institute[5], so it can't be that bad of an idea.

[1] "Fact Sheet: Plan to Protect Privacy in the Internet Age by Adopting a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights." White House Office of the Press Secretary.
[2] "Obama's Internet Bill Of Rights Will Be Hard to Enforce: Here's Why". PC Advisor.
[3] "White House Privacy Bill of Rights Brought to You by Years of Online Debacles". Wired Magazine.
[4] Ken Kaplan "Obama issues Internet Bill of Rights" The Examiner.
[5] "Internet ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’ Poses Business Threats" The Heartlander.

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