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Conference Explores Privacy Issues in an Increasingly Connected Society

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WASHINGTON, June 13, 2013 – Most Americans have a negative view of data gathering and feel that they have little control over what information is available to businesses and the government, according to a poll released Thursday by Allstate and National Journal-Heartland Monitor.

However, many Americans also recognize the benefits, including connecting with friends and receiving personalized information about products and services of interest.

The implications of the poll were discussed at a conference here on privacy in the internet age.

In the first of two keynote interviews, former Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz spoke on the importance of protecting consumers from unwanted data gathering. Designing devices that allow the user to prevent the use of cookies to track activity was a high priority for Leibowitz.

“The most promising opportunity is technology that will allow consumers to protect their own privacy,” he said.

Leibowitz made the distinction between first-party entities that use data to provide users with benefits and third-party entities that track users without their knowledge or consent. For example, trusted sites such as Amazon and Netflix use data to make recommendations to users, but other sites secretly use cookies to track activity.

The second keynote speaker, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., also spoke of empowering consumers to protect themselves.

“What we need to make certain is that our constituents have the ability to protect their ‘virtual you,’ as I call it,” she said.

Blackburn laid out two important steps consumers should take to facilitate the creation of more acceptable environment. Consumers should be sure to read any privacy agreements, and they should engage with companies to help the industry come forward with a set of privacy standards. Despite this emphasis on standards created within the industry, she also noted that Congress is likely to consider privacy legislation in the near future.

The event concluded with a discussion among a panel of experts on a number of privacy-related topics including government transparency, the recent revelations regarding National Security Agency information gathering, and the trade-offs between privacy and social benefits.

Nigel Jacob, board member of Code for America and co-chair of the Boston Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, described how his work toward transparency had produced numerous benefits in Boston. He asserted that this transparency had enabled public-private partnerships, built trust, and helped drive community unity.

Marc Rotenberg, president and executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information, had a number of sharp criticisms for the NSA. He questioned the constitutionality of the data gathering under the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits the unreasonable seizing of information. The NSA’s defense of their actions has also been weak due to the use of anecdotal evidence which supports their argument rather than comprehensive statistics that would show the actual effectiveness of the program.

“There are a lot of ways to promote accountability through the publication of statistics,” Rotenberg said.

The panelists also discussed trade-offs that could be made of privacy for social benefits, such as the use of medical records for research purposes.

Evan Selinger, associate professor of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of Technology, noted that such issues often carry disproportionate weight in the privacy debate, silencing privacy advocates who fear being labeled as opponents of progress. Rotenberg argued that the idea of trade-offs presented a false dichotomy, and that people can maintain their privacy while still benefitting from applications of data.

“I think we need to raise our expectations that we can enjoy the benefits of technology and enjoy privacy,” he said.

Robocall

Public Knowledge Urges VoIP to Be Regulated Under Title II to Stop Robocalls

Title II would require VoIP services to be subject to stronger regulations already in place for telecommunication providers.

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Photo of Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge

WASHINGTON, August 18, 2022 – Public Knowledge is asking the Federal Communications Commission to classify facilities-based voice over Internet protocol services under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, which it said would help the commission tackle robocalls.

The non-profit public interest group last week amended a March petition to the agency narrowing the field of VoIP providers to be captured under its proposal to facilities-based interconnected VoIP services, which require a broadband connection for real-time voice communications on the public telephone network. That’s instead of a broader field including non-interconnected services, which allow voice communications through a device not connected to the phone network, like gaming consoles.

Title II specifies authority given to the FCC to regulate “common carriers” – utilities such as landline phones, telecommunication services, and electricity. Currently, VoIP services are not included in any specific classification. Instead, the FCC relies on rules based on its ancillary authority given under Title I of the Communications Act, which provides less regulatory authority to the commission.

If classified under Title II, VoIP providers would be beholden to service quality regulations, such as the prevention of ever-increasing robocalls, and to regulations ensuring affordable access to infrastructure for competitive carriers, Public Knowledge said in its petition.

The organization also said that new categorization would prevent a “crisis of legal authority” for the FCC, which already makes VoIP services subject to certain Title II regulations, such as contributions to the basic telecommunications program, the Universal Service Fund. Currently, Public Knowledge argues, regulations governing VoIP services are a collection of ad hoc rulings based on ancillary authority.

Lack of classification ‘threatens’ FCC ability to fulfill legislative mandate

Congress “deliberately used expansive terms” when defining telecommunications in the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which gave the FCC authority to regulate sectors within the communications industry, said the March petition. “At a minimum, Congress intended the FCC to regulate any service that behaves like a traditional telephone service – regardless of the underlying technology – as a telecommunications service,” read the petition.

Yet despite a lack of meaningful difference between VoIP and traditional telephone services, the FCC continues to treat VoIP services differently, said the petition. This “failure” of the FCC to classify VoIP under Title II allegedly frustrates the commission’s ability to effectively address robocalls and makes uncertain whether the commission preempted its authority to regulate VoIP services.

“The FCC’s failure to classify facilities-based interconnected VoIP threatens the ability of the FCC to fulfill the most basic responsibilities entrusted to it by Congress,” stated the petition.

The burden of Title II

In a blog post on the matter, communications law firm CommLaw group argued that Title II VoIP providers would likely be required to obtain FCC approval prior to transfers of assets and mergers and acquisitions, which it said would slow transaction speed considerably. Furthermore, it could open the door to “increased state regulatory oversight, requirements, and burdens,” it added.

Earlier this month, Democratic Senators introduced a bill that would give the FCC regulatory authority over broadband by classifying those services as Title II. It would allow the commission greater regulatory authority to make internet service providers respect principles of net neutrality, which prohibit providers from throttling traffic on their networks, participating in paid prioritization, or blocking of any lawful content. The bill, however, has been met with opposition.

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Privacy

Online Protections for Children Bill Passes Committee Despite Concern over FTC Authority

Opposition to a reformed COPPA include the ability of the FTC to enact broad rule-making.

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Photo of Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass.

WASHINGTON, July 28, 2022 – The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation approved two online privacy protection bills in a Wednesday markup, including an update to legislation that will increase the age for online protection for children.

An update to the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy and Protection Act (S.1628) – which originally passed in 1998 but had amendments proposed last May – would see the age of protections increase from 13 to 15, meaning large internet companies will be prohibited from collecting the personal information of anyone under 16 without consent and ban targeted marketing to those children. The bill passed via voice vote.

Other provisions in the bill include a mandate to create an online “eraser button” that will allow users to eliminate personal information of a child or teen; implement a “Digital Marketing Bill of Rights for Minors” that limits the collection of personal information from young users; and establish a first-of-its-kind Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the FTC,” according to a summary of the bill’s key components.

“The Senate Commerce Committee this morning took a historic step towards stopping Big Tech’s predatory behavior from harming kids every day,” Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., who introduced the amendments, said Wednesday.

The other bill, the Kids Online Safety Act (S.3663), will give parents enhanced control over their children’s online activities to “better protect their health and well-being.” The bill, introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT, and Senator Marsha Blackburn, R-TN, passed 28-0.

The bill would put in place additional safeguards and tools, such as platforms giving minors options to protect their personal information and to disable recommendations.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had a piece of legislation that has had such strong support across groups across the country” “Parents want a tool kit to protect their children online,” Senator Blumenthal said during Wednesday’s hearing.

The bills now move to the Senate floor.

Concern about FTC authority under new COPPA

Under COPPA 2.0, the FTC authority includes determining what are “unfair or deceptive acts” in marketing practices and enforcing violations. In May, the agency put out a policy statement specifying its focus on enforcing the existing version of the bill.

Some senators voted against passing COPPA 2.0 over concern that it would give the Federal Trade Commission too much rule-making authority.

Senator Blackburn said there should be more restrictions on the ability of the FTC to make rules so there wouldn’t be overreach.

Similarly, Senator Mike Lee, R-UT, said he was not able to support the bill during markup because he is concerned about “giving a blanket ruling power to the FTC.

“We are at our best when we carefully consider legislation and don’t rush through it,” Lee said.

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Cybersecurity

Rep. Swalwell Says App Preference Bill Will Harm National Security

‘I just want to limit the ability for any bad actor to get into your device.’

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Photo of Representative Eric Swalwell, D-Calif.

July 27, 2022 – Antitrust legislation that would restrict the preferential treatment of certain apps on platforms would harm national security by making more visible apps from hostile nations, claimed Representative Eric Swalwell, D-Calif, at a Punchbowl News event Wednesday.

The American Innovation and Choice Online Act is currently under review by the Senate and, if passed, would prohibit certain online platforms from unfairly preferencing products, limiting another business’ ability to operate on a platform, or discriminating against competing products and services.

The legislation would ban Apple and Google from preferencing their own first-party apps on their app stores, which would make it easier for apps disseminated from hostile nations to be seen on the online stores, Swalwell said.

“[Russia and China] could flood the app store with apps that can vacuum up consumer data and send it back to China,” said Swalwell, adding that disinformation regarding American elections would spread. “Until these security concerns are addressed, we should really pump the breaks on this.”

Swalwell asked for a hearing conducted by Judiciary Committee of the House with the National Security Agency, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and Homeland Security officials to lay out what the bill would mean for national security.

“I just want to limit the ability for any bad actor to get into your device, whether you’re an individual or small business,” said Swalwell.

Lawmakers have become increasingly concerned about China’s access to American data through popular video-sharing apps, such as TikTok. Last month, Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr called for Apple and Google to remove the app on the grounds that the app’s parent company, ByteDance, is “beholden” to the Communist government in China and required to comply with “surveillance demands.”

The comments follow debate surrounding the bill, which was introduced to the Senate on May 2 by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on how it would affect small businesses and American competitiveness globally.

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