Will online privacy laws actually make a difference?

Molly Wood Feb 24, 2012

It was kind of a double whammy announcement. The White House announced what it called a Privacy Bill of Rights, seven principles of how your privacy should be protected:

Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.

Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use, and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.

Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.

Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.

Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.

Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

At the same time, a group of web companies, including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL, announced broad implementation of a Do Not Track system. The idea is that a little button that says Do Not Track will appear on your web browser. Click it and you are to be left alone, not followed around the web by advertisers.

Now, this all sounds very nice, right? But don’t get any fancy ideas that privacy worries will all be magically lifted away.

Let’s start with the Privacy Bill of Rights. These precepts were a long time coming. “The basic principles here are principles that have been based on what we call the Fair Information Practice Principles,” says Justin Brookman from the Center for Democracy and Technology. “They were first put forward by the Nixon administration in the ’70s.”

That’s right: since Nixon. “The basic idea is of transparency, telling people what’s going on, giving people choice about how their data is being used and treated, getting rid of old data,” Brookman explains, “they’re very axiomatic in privacy circles and so the administration says we need to find a way to make this a reality for consumers.”

But a statement of beliefs is one thing, a real law is something else entirely. The president can issue a statement but you need broad support for a whole new law. And even if that were to happen, says Brookman, “The law is not going to say what to do in every single situation. What technology might exist in five years? We’re not entirely sure. How would the basic principles of transparency apply in those situations? So there will be a need to have folks come together and try to derive consensus on emerging issues.”

So the Privacy Bill of Rights won’t have much immediate impact on you and your computer. The new Do Not Track system will be more noticeable. Those buttons should start showing up soon. But there too, the way it’s carried out is far from simple.

“If you ask the typical consumer, what do you think it means to track, they would probably say well, if the company is following me around and looking at what I’m doing, that’s tracking,” says Carnegie Mellon University professor Lorrie Cranor. “But, the industry says, well, there are a lot of times that we need to follow you around and look at what you’re doing in order to provide services you want and need. Like, if you’re on a retailer and you put stuff in your shopping basket, we need to know that. So, we’re not going to call that tracking. And then they have a whole list of things that they say we’re not going to call tracking. And, depending on whether you’re a consumer or whether you’re Facebook or Google or a retailer, you probably have different interests in what should be tracking and what’s not tracking.”

Also in this program, the Oscars are this Sunday and a lot of people will be covering them live on Twitter. We’re joined by comedian Lizz Winstead, one of the original creators of “The Daily Show.” She offers advice on how to make your tweets stand out. 

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