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FTC Commissioner Focuses on Internet Privacy

Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012

Characterizing the Federal Trade Commission as "the nation's premier consumer protection privacy agency," FTC Commissioner Julie Brill focused on new developments in Internet privacy at a presentation Sept. 20 at Santa Clara University. Her talk was part of the “State of the Net West” townhall series, in which federal policymakers meet with members of the Silicon Valley community to discuss technology policy.

Brill began by detailing consumers’ increasing reliance on mobile tools—noting, for example, that 52 percent of college students report that they check their phones before getting out of bed. She also highlighted disparities among various segments of the population, citing consumer surveys which show that 40 percent of people in households earning less than $30,000 per year go online mostly through their phones, as compared to 17 percent of households earning more than $50,000 per year. In addition, half of African-Americans and 40 percent of Latinos who access the Internet report doing most of their browsing through their phones.

As Internet access through mobile devices becomes widespread, Commissioner Brill said that app developers and app service providers are increasingly realizing that they have to think about consumer privacy, too. In the “diffuse ecosystem” of the Web, she said, which involves so many players, it is easy for each of them to believe that “privacy is somebody else’s responsibility.” However, if nothing else, a variety of FTC enforcement actions have demonstrated that both large and smaller players involved in data collection and analysis would be best served by “baking” privacy into their products.

Commissioner Brill praised the agreements reached by California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris and various platform providers (including Amazon, Google, and Facebook), which have agreed to provide app developers with tools that will allow those developers to give consumers clear information about their privacy policies. In general, Commissioner Brill urged app developers to limit the information that they collect from users to data that is necessary for the app to work; she also spoke of the need to then provide adequate security for that data.

A significant portion of the Commissioner’s talk, as well as of the question-and-answer period that followed, focused on the ongoing efforts to develop a “Do Not Track” mechanism through which consumers would express their wishes if they didn’t want to be tracked by companies online. Commissioner Brill sounded optimistic about the efforts of the W3C consortium, which has been holding meetings with key stakeholders in an effort to develop standards for the implementation of a “Do Not Track” signal.

Commissioner Brill noted that some stakeholders have called for exceptions that would allow continued data collection for “market research” and “product improvement” (even from consumers who request that they not be tracked), and she called on advertising networks to provide more input in defining those exceptions. She also called on the W3C to address the issue of data retention limits. She described limits on the amount of data collected, and on the amount of time that data may be held, as ways to enhance data security.

Finally, she warned that consumers who are concerned about online privacy and loss of control over their personal information might turn to self-help tools that would be “more blunt” than the ones currently being discussed in the W3C.

In response to a question suggesting that the vast majority of consumers would choose to opt out of tracking if given that option, Commissioner Brill argued that companies need to convey more clearly to consumers the benefits of behavioral (or targeted) advertising, and need to give people more “granular” choices about the types of ads they want to see. She noted that companies also need to explain to consumers that, in the absence of advertising revenue, providers would find it difficult to continue to deliver the sites or services that consumers are now enjoying.

Tags: IT and ethics, privacy