Commentary

Privacy Advocates: Commerce Department's Call For Self-Regulation Falls Flat

The Department of Commerce recently issued a privacy report recommending that online ad industry groups and consumer advocates should jointly develop self-regulatory privacy principles, and that the administration add a privacy czar who would convene industry groups, advocates and others to develop new self-regulatory codes.

Not surprisingly, some privacy advocates are saying these proposals don't go nearly far enough.

"We've tried voluntary codes for over a decade now, and in the privacy field, it hasn't gone too well," writes Berkeley Law's Chris Hoofnagle in a blog post about the Commerce Department report.

"In the absence of substantive privacy law, commercial data brokers created the very citizen databases that the Privacy Act of 1974 sought to prevent. The government can simply buy data on its citizens now instead of collecting it directly," Hoofnagle writes.

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He adds that though the industry created the Network Advertising Initiative more than 10 years ago, many networks don't participate. The result, he says, is that "non-NAI member network advertisers have multiplied, developed more sophisticated methods to track individuals, and engaged in the very behaviors that NAI promised it would prevent, such as the merging of data collection online and off."

The Electronic Privacy Information Center also argues against continued self-regulation in the online privacy realm. "Until government's focus shifts from self-regulation to enforcement, it will be impossible to achieve meaningful privacy protection for American consumers and users of Internet-based services," EPIC argues.

The organization adds that a Privacy Policy Office can't be effective without enforcement authority. "Self-regulation has failed to protect consumers, and the Office proposed by Commerce would be perpetuating the status quo of self-regulation," EPIC argues. "Additionally because the Office would be located within the Department of Commerce, it would not be able to operate independently of the Department, which would prevent it from being as effective as privacy agencies in other nations." Industry groups are expected to weigh in with comments by tomorrow's deadline.

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