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Facebook, Google, and Apple Ease Privacy Concerns of Senators

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WASHINGTON, July 28, 2010 – Member of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation are worried about unclear consumer online privacy policies and the negative effects of targeted advertising.

Representatives from Apple, Facebook, Google, The Cato Institute, AT&T, and the Annenberg School for Communication overviewed their current privacy policies and tools, and outlined the future of their privacy controls.

Bud Tribble, from Apple Inc., said Apple builds privacy protection into its devices instead of asking consumers to add protection through downloading applications. He focused on their location-based services, such as GPS applications, which a user must authorize before the application will function. This type of opt-in service gives more control to the user than the more commonly-practiced opt-out licensing agreements.

Facebook’s chief technology officer, Bret Taylor, also agreed that giving users easy control over their privacy settings is essential since the people who use Facebook supply all of its content. “Individuals use social technologies to connect and share information, but they also play an important role in policing the medium itself,” said Taylor. He said Facebook tried to ensure familiarity with their privacy settings by requiring all users to navigate through a privacy transition tool, where they had to confirm or change their privacy settings.

Alma Whitten, privacy engineering lead at Google, said they were focused on building transparency and user controls into their services. She said their Dashboard tool allows consumers to easily see, edit, or delete information from their Google account. She said that while there had been a security mishap with Google’s StreetView service, none of the collected data was ever shared and Google is working on a solution to prevent further problems.

Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at The Cato Institute, agreed that privacy online was mostly a user control issue. He addressed targeted advertising, which he said makes users feel like they have lost some of that control over their personal information. However, he doubted whether direct privacy legislation would improve the online privacy climate. He said the current privacy policies, or “fair information practices,” are too complex and inconsistent to have a real effect. Mandated privacy notices have not made improvements either since they rely on consumers actually reading those notices, which they often do not.

Like Apple, Dorothy Attwood, chief privacy officer at AT&T said it is important to have privacy functions built in from the outset instead of leaving it up to consumers. She said AT&T had also consolidated 17 separate privacy policies into one with easy-to-understand language.

Joseph Turow, from The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said he was concerned about some of the proposed privacy solution. He said applications like Google Dashboard give users the impression that they have “the whole picture about their privacy,” when they really just have some controls over their Google accounts.

He was also concerned about social discrimination resulting from targeted advertisements and the way people would be reduced to a number instead of as a respected individual. He suggested a limit on the amount of information that an online presence could hold about an individual or household.

Sen. Kerry (D-Mass) said that the policies are just too confusing. He was also concerned about incorrect or out-of-context information from a user that could cost someone a job or health insurance.

Genachowski and Leibowitz Testify Before Senate on Privacy Issues

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WASHINGTON, July 28, 2010 – The Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission have formed a task force to deal with online privacy concerns facing American consumers.

At a Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing, Sen. Rockefeller (D-WV) was concerned that consumers have no idea what type of information is being collected and shared about them or how to stop their information from getting collected. He said he was not concerned about the “savvy computer whiz-kid” or the “lawyer who reads legalese for a living,” but the ordinary internet user with a webmail account and a Facebook page.

Rockefeller said the committee has the duty to make clear to Americans what information is being stored about them, and whether or not they have the power to stop certain information-collecting practices.

FCC Chairman Genachowski said the National Broadband Plan recognizes that even as consumers learn about the benefits of broadband, they are also concerned about their privacy online. The more consumers feel their privacy to be at risk, the less likely they are to utilize broadband tools, which in turn cut down the potential economic benefits of broadband expansion.

He said the FCC is concerned with service providers being transparent about their practices and that those practices protect consumers’ personal data from third parties.

Genachowski also said “the National Broadband Plan reviewed the current regulatory landscape regarding online privacy, and found that the existing framework in some cases is confusing and would benefit from increased clarity.”

He then highlighted the recent creation of a joint task force between the FCC and the FTC to develop new approaches to protecting online privacy.

Genachowski named several organizations and tools available to consumers to assist them with privacy controls. OnGuard Online is a coalition spearheaded by the FTC that gives privacy advice to consumers. Net Cetera is a guide for parents that covers the issues facing children as communications become more digital-based. He also announced the FCC’s launch of an online Consumer Help Center, which allows consumers to access resources for questions and a system for consumers to file complaints.

Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the FTC, said they had identified four principles as the basis of their Fair Information Practices approach. The principles were that businesses should notify customers about the information they collect, consumers should be given choices about how their information is used, consumers should have access to data collected about them, and businesses should ensure the security of the information they have collected.

Leibowitz said that consumers do not understand and read through licensing agreements for online services, which often eliminate privacy rights instead of protecting them.

He also said that the FTC continues to pursue the companies that violate current privacy laws. He said the FTC is a small agency by Washington standards, but that they would have more effect if they could levy greater civil fines.

When asked if the FCC or FTC should be the leading agency in privacy efforts, Genachowski said each agency had its own areas of expertise, even where the agencies overlap. He said they would continue to coordinate their education efforts to consumers to ensure the information is not contradictory and comes from a reliable source.

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