Home > Policy, Regulation > Trying Another Form at the FTC’s first Privacy Roundtable

Trying Another Form at the FTC’s first Privacy Roundtable

At the first of the FTC’s Exploring Privacy roundtables held earlier today, Chairman Leibowitz was asked whether the FTC approach to regulating privacy has been successful.  Artfully dodging the question, Leibowitz responded by likening the privacy issue to Winston Churchill’s view of democracy:

“it has been said that democracy is the worse form of government — except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

The Chairman’s remark encapsulated the spirit of the day, as a reinvigorated FTC dived deep into consensus building with a who’s who from the world of privacy policy. This is just the start of the inquiry, with another two roundtables to follow. The plethora of smart thinking and ideas that flowed in stream-of-consciousness fashion from today’s panelists were helpful to the evolution of a regulatory construct for online privacy.  Yet, many questions remain unanswered.  And even with all the bright minds in attendance, the contours of an effective regulatory scheme for online privacy remain unclear.

More research on web attitudes, custom and habits is needed. As we learned today, the personal data ecosystem is extremely complex and layered (like those privacy notices you can never find the bottom of).  Did you know that there are over 20 different categories of companies – including web marketers, search engines and online data brokers – that currently collect information in personally identifiable or aggregated form? Incidentally, the FTC did a great job of pulling together supporting material for the roundtable, including this slide on the personal data ecosystem that should be a must-view for anyone surfing or shopping on the web.

Clearly there is tension between the approach advocated by those representing the consumer interest (CDT, CDD, EPIC, etc.), and those involved in what Commissioner Harbour described as a “digital arms race” – the race to monetize content and information and build massive ad-viewing bases in the digital economy. Consumer organizations are urging the FTC to adopt stricter privacy regulations – at a time when online advertising is exploding on both the desktop and mobile web.  Now, the FTC must engage in a careful balancing act – develop a regulatory framework that protects consumer data online while not impeding the growth of technological innovations that utilize profile data.

The discussion will continue at a second FTC roundtable on January 28th.   Here are some of the discussions I hope to hear in round two:

  • The volume of personal data that travels on the web today pales in comparison to the volume of data we will see in a future of web-enabled devices and integrated systems. Does a use-based classification system with individual opt-outs for each type of information really work with large volumes of information?  Or should all personally identifiable information be regulated in the same way, irrespective of use?
  • Several panelists indicated that self-regulation is not working.  What’s the alternative? Is the failure of self-regulation attributable to the lack of clear government guidelines or engagement on what online privacy policies should look like?
  • In 2008, for the first time, more people accessed the web through their mobile phones than through a desktop. As the FTC attempts to get ahead of the online privacy issue, what considerations should be given to privacy protections on the mobile vs. desktop web?
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