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Privacy Experts Urge U.S. to Engage in Global Debate, but Get Own House in Order

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WASHINGTON, May 7, 2010 – The United States needs to act as a world leader by using its talents to help develop an innovative global privacy framework, but first it must get its own house in order, said privacy experts Friday.

At the Privacy and Innovation Symposium at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke opened the discussion by saying it’s time to acknowledge that the Internet, with more than 1 billion users worldwide, “is no longer in startup mode.”

Because of its reach and scope, it’s important to develop a new privacy framework that ensures consumer privacy while ensuring the nation’s prosperity, he said.

In the first panel discussion, Nicole Wong, vice president and deputy general counsel for Google, said it’s important as the United States ponders making a new framework, to consider that most data is moving onto servers not based in the content owner’s country of residence. “There is a premise in data protection authorities’ heads that their jurisdiction is about the location of data in a country,” she said. “We all know that things are moving to [cloud computing]. Any framework set on top of [geographical borders] will fail…We’re trying to get information across borders in a way that best serves users.”

Larry Irving, vice president of global affairs with Hewlett-Packard and a former head of the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, said when he was at Commerce in the 1990s they discussed privacy issues and it was all about consumer trust and that still holds true today.

Lesile Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, said: “Trust is what we need to continue building…but it’s important that we understand that privacy is more than just trust in the applications, it’s a core American value…and America runs on the internet” now.

Wong agreed that trust is a key issue and said that today smart engineers and technologist are able to provide consumers with “meaningful choices” on a granular level that can give them more control over their privacy, which in turn will build their trust in e-commerce.

She added that because a unique technology is coming around the corner every minute, it’s extraordinarily difficult to regulate technologies and their use, especially when privacy cultures differ greatly by country.

For example, she said Google’s StreetView technology allowing pictures of street scenes proved very unpopular in Germany but was embraced in other countries. “It’s important to start a dialogue,” she said.

To engage in a meaningful dialogue globally, “we’ve got to get our own house in order,” said Harris. “We can’t just suddenly announce we need a global framework.”

Wong said it’s important to make sure that a consumer privacy experience is interactive and meaningful, adding that technology has moved on from simple “notice and choice” policies, which she called “two dimensional.” That type of privacy policy tells the user a company’s privacy policy, for example, and then allows the consumer to agree or not agree to it.

Wong said technology now exists to allow consumers to edit their privacy preferences and reveal to them how they are being tracked.

Internationally, Harris said, there’s a perception that because the United States doesn’t have a data commissioner “we are viewed as outliers.”

However, she said most of the innovation in privacy happens in the United States and lauded that many firms have chief privacy officers on staff today.

Policymakers, she said, should be careful not to “get into the kind of granular codification [on privacy] so that we freeze where we are now” and not enable companies to continue innovating.

“If we can innovate at that level, we should be able to innovate at the policy level,” she said. “We are at point where a global framework makes sense…but it takes government leadership not just companies.”

Wong told the discussion moderator, NTIA chief Larry Strickling, that the Commerce Department should recognize itself as a global leader whose policymakers, technologists and entrepreneurs have developed an unbelievable platform.

However, there needs to be some sort of enforcement agency looking out for Americans’ best interest, said Irving, acknowledging that the Federal Trade Commission has a role there.

Harris suggested that the department should work with companies that might not be leaders in privacy practices and design and help them take some of these initiatives and apply them to their own smaller firms.

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