Commentary

World Privacy Forum: FTC, Not Commerce, Should Take Lead On Privacy

Online privacy will be the subject of two separate upcoming governmental reports -- which is one too many, some advocates say.

The World Privacy Forum says that one of the agencies about to issue a report, the Department of Commerce, shouldn't play a leadership role in shaping online privacy policy because that agency is seen as pro-business. Instead, the World Privacy Forum (and some other advocates) argue that the Federal Trade Commission should take the lead on Internet privacy. Just today, the World Privacy Forum issued a paper questioning Commerce's track record on privacy issues.

Yet, of the two upcoming reports, the FTC's will likely recommend self-regulation, while Commerce's will likely recommend that Congress enact new online privacy laws based on Fair Information Practices principles. For that reason alone, the upcoming Commerce Department report sounds like it could have more of an impact on online data collection than an FTC report that calls for continued voluntary self-regulation.

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Consider, Fair Information Practices principles would require that companies notify consumers about online data collection and allow them to consent. Those principles also would prohibit companies from using data for purposes other than what it was collected for. In other words, insurance carriers probably wouldn't be allowed to assess people's health risks by purchasing data about their magazine subscriptions, under the principles.

But even though the World Privacy Forum and others have made clear they oppose the Commerce Department's involvement in developing online privacy laws, some advocates, like the Center for Democracy & Technology -- which itself has called for new baseline laws based on fair information principles -- appear to support Commerce's call for new laws.

Meantime, the think tank Future of Privacy Forum is taking the position that two heads are better than one. "We need the FTC and Commerce working together -- pushing and pulling and a combination of both law and serious but flexible and business practical self-regulation," the group says in a new blog post. "Creating a false sense of competition or conflict will result in inaction and lack of progress."

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