As web giants amass more and more information about consumers for behavioral targeting and even "social discrimination" -- which can include differential pricing for the same product or the use of web tracking data and falsely-flagged websites to promote certain brandname drug use -- the White House has called for a privacy bill of rights. Companies and powerful industry lobbies seeking to keep those rights weak simultaneously rolled out their own "Do Not Track Us Sometimes" button.
The White House announcement came yesterday. Today, those powerful industry lobbies, along with consumer and privacy advocates, are invited to an administration event featuring the White House's Gene Sperling, Commerce Secretary John Bryson and FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz. In today's New York Times story on the federal happenings, John Simpson of Consumer Watchdog summarized a lot of the key issues that concern U.S. PIRG and others: "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. A concern is that the administration’s privacy effort is being run out of the Commerce Department."
Many privacy advocates look at Commerce, playing its traditional role of promoting business, as stepping in to both dilute the impact of an anticipated FTC report demanding greater (although still largely voluntary) privacy safeguards and also to undercut tougher privacy efforts -- which apply to US companies -- by European regulators.
Last month, a bi-partisan group of Congressional privacy hawks called for an FTC investigation of whether Google's new company-wide privacy regime being implemented across all its products March 1 undercuts previous privacy promises and legal settlements as does its apparent effort to bypass privacy safeguards in Apple's Safari browser. This week, state attorneys general have also demanded information from Google about its slippery, ever-changing privacy policies: The AGs write: "Until now, users of Google’s many products could use different products in different ways, expecting that information they provide for one product, such as YouTube, would not be synthesized with information they provide for another product, such as Gmail and Maps. The new policy forces these consumers to allow information across all of these products to be shared, without giving them the proper ability to opt out."
U.S. PIRG and the Center for Digital Democracy have long urged greater baseline privacy protections because industry self-regulation has, quite simply, served industry well but never worked at all to protect privacy.
Finally, listen to Professor Joe Turow -- author of the new book "The Daily You" -- tell Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air yesterday that "tracking is ubiquitous across the Internet, from search engines to online retailers and even greeting card companies. A recent Valentine's Day card sent to his wife, for instance, contained trackers from 15 separate companies."