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Privacy & Data

Congress Surveys Consumer Privacy Landscape

Privacy is a building block of trust in this digital age; and yes, there's an "app" for that.  It's called a federal baseline consumer privacy bill, it just hasn't passed… yet.  

CDT President Leslie Harris testified yesterday at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection examining two current privacy bills; the Best Practices Act (H.R. 5777) from Subcommittee Chairman Bobby Rush and a draft bill from from Congressmen Rick Boucher.  In her written testimony Harris said:

Americans turn to search engines to answer sensitive questions about their health. They use smart phone applications to pinpoint their location and obtain directions to a lawyerʼs or therapist's office. They shop, leaving digital traces of the book stores they browse, credit card numbers, and home and email addresses with “salesclerks” they never meet.

While few consumers fully grasp the extent of this large and growing data trade, both the hearing record and numerous independent studies show that practices such as deep packet inspection, online behavioral advertising, and the merger of online and offline consumer data into profiles undermine consumer trust, the fundamental building block of Internet use.

Harris applauded Rush and Boucher for taking important steps toward aligning U.S. policy with the desires and expectations of American consumers and the needs of American businesses hoping to compete in the global economy. Both bills provide a much-needed uniform set of baseline rules to guide the collection and use of personal information collected both online and off-line.  Leslie also commended Chairman Rush for including in the BEST PRACTICES bill strong FIPS-based privacy protections that go beyond notice and consent to a full set of substantive privacy protections.  

This point was echoed by fellow witness David Vladeck, head of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. Vladeck prompted laughter when he recounted a particularly apt online prank orchestrated by UK video game retailer Gamestation.  On April 1, Gamestation added a clause to its Terms of Service that gave it a non-transferrable claim on each user’s soul. Even though Gamestation provided an incentivized opt-out – an $8 voucher for users who refused to give away their souls, 88% of users (7,500 people) nonetheless sold their souls to the company. The point was clear: opt outs buried in terms of service documents are so inaccessible and ineffective that claiming they offer consumers real control is, well, laughable.

On topics ranging from whether this notice and choice regime is acceptable to whether the FTC-approved safe harbor provision of Chairman Rush’s bill would be effective, the subcommittee heard a wide range of differing opinions. The subcommittee is clearly interested in hearing from all relevant stakeholders as it takes on the difficult task of creating the first baseline consumer privacy law.

As this process moves forward, CDT looks forward to working with Congressmen Rush and Boucher to help craft a final bill that will both give consumers the protections they want  and provide the flexibility that American businesses need to continue to innovate and grow.