TechMan: Obama all talk on Web privacy

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Is the White House serious about protecting consumers' online privacy, or is it just blowing election-year smoke?

Let's look at what the administration said Thursday.

The announcement dealt with two different types of privacy: personal information that is collected about and from you on the Internet; and information about your habits and preferences obtained by tracking your activity on the Web.

An example of the first type would be your email address. An example of the second would be knowing that you visit bowling-related sites often and so should be targeted with an ad for bowling supplies.

Some of this may sound familiar, and with good reason. Congress has been talking for several years about legislation in both areas, but nothing has been done.

On the tracking issue, the Federal Trade Commission in 2010 put out a request that Web browsers include a way to allow consumers to block tracking.

That happened halfheartedly. Some browsers emerged with anti-tracking features that had to be turned on by the user, and that was not particularly easy to do.

Apple's Safari browser came with anti-tracking turned on by default.

The problem with this approach was that websites had to voluntarily indicate to the browser that they were tracking sites. As The Wall Street Journal revealed about a week ago, Google had been purposely designing its software to circumvent Safari's anti-tracking feature.

A big problem in asking the browser-makers to prevent tracking is that they are the same companies that make billions from targeted ads based on tracking information -- Google being the most obvious example.

It's like telling a lumber company you can continue in the business but you have to prevent any trees from being cut down.

The Obama administration says the privacy initiative will work better this time around because of a voluntary agreement signed by Web advertising networks and "leading Internet companies," including Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL.

The Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry trade group that has been trying to fend off federal legislation of online tracking, said its members have agreed to support browsers that have simpler and more effective anti-tracking features.

The companies signing off on the agreement account for delivery of nearly 90 percent of behavior-based advertisement, according to White House figures. If a company signs up, it agrees to Federal Trade Commission oversight and enforcement.

Of course, this is all voluntary, so if you're not a company or a member of a trade group that has signed the agreement, there is nothing to bind you to any of this.

"The real question is how much influence companies like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Facebook will have in their inevitable attempt to water down the rules that are implemented and render them essentially meaningless," said John Simpson, spokesman for Consumer Watchdog.

The centerpiece of the White House program is the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights -- a set of principles intended to guide how businesses handle consumers' personal information -- and steps to incorporate those principles into federal regulations.

Again, it is voluntary, enabled by negotiating a set of practices with industry, consumer protection and privacy advocates. The practices will then be enforceable by the FTC.

There are seven major principles in the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, but the first one labeled "individual control" summarizes the thrust of the policy.

"Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it."

The White House says the bill of rights could be a model for any legislation on online privacy.

And so the elephant in the room is finally acknowledged -- legislation.

TechMan is not a fan of legislating the Internet, but in this case it is unlikely with the amount of money involved that there can be any effective and lasting solution without new laws.

Particularly in an election year, Congress will be gun-shy about regulating the Internet.

Remember SOPA?

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