Obama’s ‘Privacy Bill of Rights’ Gets Bashed from All Sides

The proposal aims to give consumers more control over their own information, but privacy advocates say it doesn’t go far enough.

In this photo illustration the Social networking site Facebook is reflected in the eye of a man on March 25, 2009 in London, England. The British government has made proposals which would force Social networking websites such as Facebook to pass on details of users, friends and contacts to help fight terrorism.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
Feb. 27, 2015, 1:11 p.m.

The White House un­veiled an am­bi­tious le­gis­lat­ive pro­pos­al Fri­day to re­strict how com­pan­ies, in­clud­ing Web gi­ants like Face­book and Google, can handle private in­form­a­tion. And it was promptly de­nounced by in­dustry groups and pri­vacy ad­voc­ates alike.

Tech com­pan­ies warned that the so-called “Con­sumer Pri­vacy Bill of Rights Act” would im­pose bur­den­some reg­u­la­tions, po­ten­tially stifling ex­cit­ing new on­line ser­vices that could be­ne­fit con­sumers. Pri­vacy ad­voc­ates claimed the bill is riddled with loop­holes and would es­sen­tially let com­pan­ies write their own rules.

“We didn’t cel­eb­rate a great vic­tory yes­ter­day in the fight to pro­tect the In­ter­net for Amer­ic­an con­sumers just to turn around and en­able their on­line in­form­a­tion to be easy prey for di­git­al ban­dits seek­ing to pil­fer Amer­ic­ans’ per­son­al in­form­a­tion,” Sen. Ed Mar­key, a Mas­sachu­setts Demo­crat and long­time pri­vacy ad­voc­ate, said, re­fer­ring to the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion’s vote on Thursday to en­act strong net neut­ral­ity rules.

Rather than sup­port­ing the White House’s bill, Mar­key said he plans to re­in­tro­duce his own pri­vacy le­gis­la­tion next week that would crack down on “data brokers” — firms that buy and sell per­son­al in­form­a­tion.

The White House pro­pos­al is an ex­pan­sion of sev­en prin­ciples that Pres­id­ent Obama out­lined in 2012 to pro­tect con­sumers’ on­line pri­vacy, an idea that went nowhere. The ad­min­is­tra­tion now is of­fer­ing its own le­gis­lat­ive text of the prin­ciples in a bid to jump­start dis­cus­sions on Cap­it­ol Hill.

“The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is com­mit­ted to pro­tect­ing con­sumer pri­vacy while also giv­ing U.S. busi­nesses the flex­ib­il­ity they need to grow and in­nov­ate,” Lawrence Strick­ling, the Com­merce De­part­ment’s as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for com­mu­nic­a­tions and in­form­a­tion, said in a state­ment. “With this dis­cus­sion draft the White House re­leased today, we want to ad­vance Pres­id­ent Obama’s frame­work for pro­tect­ing con­sumer pri­vacy by bring­ing all parties to the table to fur­ther dis­cuss how we ef­fect­ively ap­ply pri­vacy pro­tec­tions in the di­git­al age.”

The draft bill would de­clare that con­sumers have a right to un­der­stand how their data will be used, to de­lete the data col­lec­ted about them, and to only have data col­lec­ted in “con­text” — that is, com­pan­ies shouldn’t re­use or sell data in sur­pris­ing ways. It would be the first time that U.S. con­sumers would have broad rights for how com­pan­ies across all in­dus­tries could handle their data. Health pri­vacy pro­tec­tions and oth­er sec­tor-spe­cif­ic laws would re­main in place.

But pri­vacy ad­voc­ates are dis­ap­poin­ted that the pro­pos­al would not give the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion the power to set reg­u­la­tions to en­force the prin­ciples. In­stead, com­pan­ies and in­dustry as­so­ci­ations would write their own rules and then ask the FTC to sign off on them. Ad­di­tion­ally, the bill would over­turn state laws that of­fer stronger pro­tec­tions.

Al­varo Bedoya, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter on Pri­vacy and Tech­no­logy at Geor­getown Uni­versity Law Cen­ter, warned that the bill “seems to as­sume a world where all of our data is col­lec­ted about us, all of the time.”

“Since the 1800s, the right to pri­vacy has in­cluded a simple right to say ‘leave me alone.’ This bill moves us to a world of ‘take what you want — but try to be­have,’ ” Bedoya said.

Jeff Chester, the ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Cen­ter for Di­git­al Demo­cracy, called the draft a “huge win” for com­pan­ies like Google and Face­book.

“The pres­id­ent al­lowed the pro­cess to be hi­jacked by the Com­merce De­part­ment, which is more aligned with the data lobby than the Amer­ic­an pub­lic,” Chester said.

But the Web com­pan­ies them­selves aren’t so thrilled with the pro­pos­al either. Mi­chael Beck­er­man, the CEO of the In­ter­net As­so­ci­ation, which rep­res­ents Google, Face­book, Amazon, Ya­hoo, and oth­ers, warned that the bill “casts a need­lessly im­pre­cise net.”

The Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics As­so­ci­ation, which rep­res­ents Apple, Sam­sung, and oth­er device makers, was even harsh­er. Gary Sha­piro, the group’s CEO, said the White House bill “could hurt Amer­ic­an in­nov­a­tion and choke off po­ten­tially use­ful ser­vices and products.”

Even the Fed­er­al Trade Com­mis­sion, which is made up of three Demo­crats and two Re­pub­lic­ans se­lec­ted by the pres­id­ent, is balk­ing at the bill. An agency spokes­man iden­ti­fied “con­cerns that the draft bill does not provide con­sumers with the strong and en­force­able pro­tec­tions needed to safe­guard their pri­vacy.”

House Re­pub­lic­ans is­sued one of the more gen­er­ous re­ac­tions to the draft. “There are some in­ter­est­ing ele­ments in­cluded in the pres­id­ent’s pro­pos­al, but we must tread care­fully,” said House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man Fred Up­ton and Com­merce, Man­u­fac­tur­ing, and Trade Sub­com­mit­tee Chair­man Mi­chael Bur­gess in a state­ment.

The pro­pos­al did, however, win sup­port from Mi­crosoft, as well as the Soft­ware and In­form­a­tion In­dustry As­so­ci­ation.

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