- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Obama administration is calling on technology companies to do a better job safeguarding consumer privacy as more people use mobile devices and other Internet tools that can track where they go and what they buy and read.

“Never has privacy been more important than today, in the age of the Internet, the World Wide Web and smartphones,” President Obama said in a statement.

Administration officials Thursday released the outline of a proposed Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, and urged companies to voluntarily abstain from tracking the Internet activities of consumers who choose to limit their online visibility.

While the action is voluntary, those companies who agree to let individuals use “do not track” tools will face enforcement sanctions by the Federal Trade Commission for any breaches of their commitments.

Privacy advocates broadly welcomed the initiative, but said legislation is needed to give the proposals teeth and enable federal agencies to enforce compulsory standards across the board.

“This is a very strong endorsement” of privacy rights, said Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“We would like to see legislation. We would like to see enforcement,” he added.

As part of Thursday’s launch, the White House announced that Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL — companies responsible for 90 percent of Web ads that respond to consumer behavior online — had agreed to offer consumers “do not track” options.

“Do not track” is akin to the “do not call” register, run by the FTC, that allows consumers to opt out of telemarketing sales calls.

” ‘Do not call’ worked because there was legislation and because the choices offered to consumers were simple, transparent and enforceable. Until that is true of ‘do not track,’ we will have doubts about [its effectiveness],” Mr. Rotenberg said.

Scholars said the devil is in the details on privacy policies.

Some versions of “do not track” amount to companies promising, “we’ll still track you, but we won’t serve you [advertisements] targeted as a result of [monitoring] your behavior,” said Helen Nissenbaum, a professor at New York University and a specialist in online privacy.

The advertising industry committed Thursday not to release consumers’ browsing data to companies who might use it for purposes other than advertising, such as employers making hiring decisions or insurers determining premiums or coverage.

The Obama administration’s Internet privacy push comes as more technology companies are developing advanced ways to aggregate and mine data about consumers’ interests and habits, and use the results to target advertising and marketing.

Now that so many consumers use smartphones and other mobile devices that can track their location, companies can combine online and real-world information to assemble a picture of individuals’ activities in detail.

Next week, Google will begin merging data about individual users collected across 60 Google products, including its email service, its YouTube social-networking site and its Android phone software.

The company says the move will allow it to better target search results and advertising. But critics, including several lawmakers, have raised privacy red flags.

• Susan Crabtree can be reached at scrabtree@washingtontimes.com.

• Shaun Waterman can be reached at 123@example.com.

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