Mar 27, 2012

Will the FTC's new report on online privacy make any difference?

The FTC released a new report that calls for implementation of a "do not track" button in web browsers. Isn't private browsing already an option in Firefox and Chrome? I'm not sure about IE, since I haven't used it in years. What would be different about the FTC request for a button?

One thing that is more interesting is the call for data brokers to have a central website that will provide consumers with access to their own data and the ability to correct information if needed (oh, yeah, I'm about to be 2 inches taller, 20 pounds lighter, and much, much better looking!). In light of all the well publicized security breaches that exposed private data recently, I'm not so sure that I feel great about having ALL of my personal data that is in others' hands on a single site that can be publicly accessed.

It encourages me to see that privacy concerns of individuals is at least attracting attention, but I can't help to wonder whether we will ever gain control over our information. Is that cat already out of the bag?


It's like you guys can see the future sometimes.  Today, the house passed a bill sponsored by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR) to restrict the regulatory power of the FCC today, and mandates that the FCC "analyze the specified market failure, actual consumer harm, burden of existing regulation, or failure of public institutions that warrants the rule or amendment; and determine that the benefits justify its costs."  The chances that the Senate will also pass a companion bill and that this will become law is slim to none, but it pretty clearly shows the hostility toward any sort or regulatory authority by some in Washington.  I for one am no fan of over-regulation, but to think that for-profit companies (that have a legal duty to place profit before the publics' interest) should all be essentially self-regulating seems to me a simplistic and naive world view.   


One thing to keep in mind about the FTC report is that it has no teeth.  The FTC has no authority to draft new regulations for privacy protection.  I do think most of their proposals are good steps, but unless the companies agree to it there is no way to make it happen.  I have serious doubt that congress in its present form would pass any law that restricted actions by business in any way, so I don't expect to see any legislative action on this.  Sure, there will be a few committee hearing, but the Senate has changed from a majority rule institution to one that requires 60 vote majorities for cloture (to stop a filibuster) on essentially every bill.  No way are you going to get a super majority for a regulatory law.  And the House...pfft.  So the best I really hope for is that companies voluntarily agree to the FTC voluntary guidelines, then be held to their agreements.   

I suppose every little bit helps. Keeping pressure on the browser developers, marketers, advertisers, etc. will hopefully yield easier privacy management tools.

In the meantime, try extensions like Do Not Track Plus if you want to limit the ability of advertisers to track what you do on the web. There are also plenty of other browser extensions that can help protect your privacy as well.

We'll see if this new report makes any real difference though, I think the jury is still out on that.
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