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Agency Heads Appear Before Congress to Tackle Privacy Issues

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WASHINGTON July 18, 2011- Two congressional subcommittees called on the heads of several government agencies late last week to inquire how each addresses Internet privacy issues.

The panel, assembled by the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology included the heads of the Federal Communications Commission, Federal Trade Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“The explosive growth of technology has made it possible to collect information about consumers in increasingly sophisticated ways. Sometimes the collection and use of this information is extremely beneficial; other times, it’s not,” said Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA)

“Frankly, I am somewhat skeptical right now of both industry and government. I don’t believe industry has proven that it’s doing enough to protect American consumers, while government, unfortunately, tends to overreach whenever it comes to new regulations.”

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski warned that if consumers are not able to trust the websites and services they use on the Internet then the true potential of high speed broadband can never be actualized.

“As the National Broadband Plan found, privacy concerns are a barrier to broadband adoption,” Genachowski said. “When people fear that new technology puts their privacy at risk, they’re less likely to use those new technologies. In general in this area, we need to strike a healthy balance – ensuring that private information is protected, and at the same time ensuring a climate that encourages new investment and new innovations that will create jobs and improve our quality of life.”

Genachowski went onto explain how the FCC approaches privacy in three main ways, consumer control and choice; business transparency about privacy practices, and data security.

To ensure consumer control and choice the FCC conducts a number of different educational programs in conjunction with the FTC, the Department of Commerce, and the Small Business Administration (SBA).

Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) called for a new Privacy Bill of Rights to protect children’s privacy rights.

NTIA Administrator Lawrence Strickling supported the idea of a Privacy Bill of Rights but wanted the protections to be extended to all citizens, not just children. The Obama administration asked Congress in March to develop a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” but no bill was created.

“We urged Congress to consider legislation that would establish these rights and obligations; to create incentives for the private sector to develop legally enforceable, industry-specific codes of conduct that can address emerging privacy issues while providing companies some assurance that they are in compliance with the law; and to grant the FTC sufficient authority to enforce the law,” Strickling said.

Strickling suggested that the FTC be given additional enforcement authority under the privacy bill of rights to protect consumers.

FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez presented a new framework for dealing with privacy issues, “companies should adopt a “privacy by design” approach by building privacy protections into their everyday business practices.  Such protections include providing reasonable security for consumer data, collecting only the data needed for a specific business purpose, retaining data only as long as necessary to fulfill that purpose, safely disposing of data no longer in use, and implementing reasonable procedures to promote data accuracy.”

Ramirez also endorsed the implementation of a Do Not Track list which would be a universal list that consumers could join to permanently op out of being tracked by websites and services.


Rahul Gaitonde has been writing for since the fall of 2009, and in May of 2010 he became Deputy Editor. He was a fellow at George Mason University’s Long Term Governance Project, a researcher at the International Center for Applied Studies in Information Technology and worked at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. He holds a Masters of Public Policy from George Mason University, where his research focused on the economic and social benefits of broadband expansion. He has written extensively about Universal Service Fund reform, the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program and the Broadband Data Improvement Act

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