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Obama Administration Finally Acting On Internet Privacy

Kevin Douglas Grant |
November 13, 2010 | 4:09 p.m. PST

Executive Editor

Creative Commons
Creative Commons
The United States is not known as a world leader in protecting privacy rights.  But the sleeping giant has been awakened, and that may mean new federal policy governing citizens' right to privacy online.

Ahead of major reports on Web privacy from the Federal Trade Commission and the Commerce Department, the Obama Administration announced a White House task force on privacy headed by Cameron Kerry, Sen. John Kerry's brother.

Obama will also soon announce the appointment of a privacy czar, who will be tasked with ushering in legislative changes.  The Wall Street Journal reported:

"The initiatives would mark a turning point in Internet policy. Recent administrations typically steered away from Internet regulations out of concern for stifling innovation. But the increasingly central role of personal information in the Internet economy helped spark government action, according to people familiar with the situation." 

Although Obama is finding that his Republican opponents favor protections for consumer privacy in principal, they are hesitant to grant new regulatory authority to the FTC.  Federal law has not directly addressed privacy since the Privacy Act of 1974, well before the dawn of the consumer internet.

The New York Times suggested that administrators will work to create a "do not track" system by which consumers can block companies from collecting personal data as they navigate the Web.  Recent scuffles such as Google's admission that its Street View team "inadvertently" collected Wi-fi data and Facebook's auto-sharing of personal data are just the tip of the iceberg.

Internet advertising thrives on the ongoing collection of users' activity, including search terms, profile information, and advertising clicks.  Hence Google CEO Eric Schmidt's advocating that Internet companies continue to police themselves.

Last December, he told CNBC: “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it [online] in the first place.”

Privacy advocates have welcomed the announcements from the Obama Administration:  

"It's been a dismal scene over the last couple of years in Washington over privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.  "One of the reasons the While House finally understands the need to move on this issue is that consumers are getting increasingly frustrated and agencies across Europe are saying to companies with good reason, 'your business practices violate our laws'."

This is unquestionably a big step in towards an American redefinition of privacy rights for the Internet Age.  Where will the feds draw the boundaries?


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