Commerce Secretary John Bryson said in a briefing with reporters that the administration’s proposal not only protects consumers but also gives businesses better guidance on how to meet consumer expectations.
The proposal expands on widely accepted Fair Information Practice Principles crafted in the 1970s, when the Internet was just an experimental network used primarily by researchers. Those existing guidelines say that consumers should be informed about any data collection and given the option to refuse. They should also be allowed to review and correct data about themselves. The principles have provisions for security and enforcement.
Applying the principles to the Internet era, the administration said data collected in one context should not be used for another, while companies should specify any plans for deleting data or sharing information with outside parties, such as advertisers. Companies also need to be mindful of the age and sophistication of consumers. Disclosures need to be presented when and where they are most useful for consumers.
The idea isn’t to give people access to everything a company collects about them, but they should at least be able to review and correct any information that is used to make decisions.
The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration plans to convene companies, privacy advocates, regulators and other parties in the coming months to craft detailed guidelines that reflect those principles. Enforcement will be left to the FTC under existing laws.
The codes of conduct will be specific to particular types of companies. One might cover social networks, for instance, while another might deal with services on mobile gadgets. A company that offers social-networking features on phones might adopt both. New ones could emerge as technology evolves.
Although officials expect many companies will agree to the new codes, allowing them to use that commitment in marketing materials, the report also called on Congress to pass new laws to require remaining companies to adopt such guidelines. Until then, enforcement will be limited to companies that say they would abide by the codes but fail to do so.
The Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington group that advocates stronger privacy protections, welcomed the voluntary codes as an interim measure, but said legislation ultimately will be needed to fully protect consumers.
Legislation also will be needed for the FTC to give protections to businesses that follow a checklist of good practices. Known as safe harbor, such protections would exempt companies from sanctions if they inadvertently break a code.
The report comes 14 months after the Commerce Department first proposed a privacy bill of rights. The issue was later elevated to the White House and won its endorsement with the release of Thursday’s report.
The administration dropped a proposal in the original report to create a federal privacy office within the Commerce Department. Instead, the task of convening parties to craft guidelines is left to the existing National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
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