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Privacy Policy Customization Has Both Benefits and Drawbacks, Say PrivacyCon Participants

Elijah Labby

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Screenshot of Federal Trade Commission PrivacyCon webcast

July 21, 2020 — Allowing users of online platforms to shape the use of their own private information can be a tricky practice, and not necessarily one that platforms are incentivized to employ, said participants in a Federal Trade Commission PrivacyCon webinar on Tuesday.

Speaking about the General Data Protection Regulation, a European Union law that allows users to decide how the data they give to websites is used, panelists said that such legislation is often difficult to employ and may come with adverse effects.

“On the one hand, consumers increasingly would like control over the data firms collect,” said Guy Aridor, an economics PhD candidate at Columbia University. “…On the other hand, firms are reliant on this data. There is a worry that this will impact their function.”

Aridor has done extensive research into the GDPR and recently published The Effect of Privacy Regulation on the Data Industry: Empirical Evidence from GDPR.

Garrett Johnston, who has also authored research into the consequences of the GDPR, said that customizable privacy policies could disincentivize competition.

“Our main research question is, can privacy policies hurt competition?” he said. “The GDPR is complex, but its many elements increase the logical cost and legal risk with processing personal data. This will have important consequences for the web.”

Johnson added that websites must share what data they collect, but the data can be difficult to track.

“In order to provide these services, vendors have to share what the GDPR considers personal data,” he said. “As a result, they have faced scrutiny with three countries…[But] the GDPR is challenging to study because normally we can’t observe how they use data.”

Jeff Prince, chief economist at the Federal Communications Commission, said that the GDPR decreases the number of online venders.

He said that research has shown a 15 percent reduction of vendor use post-GDPR.

Screenshot from FTC webcast

He also said that he and the agency were researching the value of users’ data.

“We are looking at how much privacy is worth around the world,” he said. “At a rough level, we can think about balancing privacy preferences for citizens with benefits for use of the data. One thing that has been emphasized is that it’s particularly difficult to measure the privacy preferences. That’s something we are trying to get at with this.”

In a companion webinar, Hana Habib, PhD student at Carnegie Mellon University, said that her research found a lack of cohesive privacy controls across platforms made choices from website to website difficult.

“Our empirical analysis found that privacy choices were often provided in privacy policies,” she said. “The downside of that, other than consumers largely ignoring privacy policies, is that the headings under which choices are presented are inconsistent from policy to policy”

When it comes to customizable privacy policies and individualized use of content, Prince said that measurements of choice can be difficult but useful.

“[We] did some measures for the value of privacy with regards to apps,” he said. “…This is one reason why quantification is valuable. A lot of times [the choice to surrender data] might not line up with what quantifiable metrics would be.”

Privacy controls are not merely desirable in the United States, but across the scope of his research, Prince continued.

“That was one of the big takeaways for me,” he said. “When we think about privacy policies and how people value privacy in a relative sense across countries and different types, there wasn’t that big of a difference across those countries.”

Privacy experts and users of platforms like Facebook and Google have often accused them of abusing user data while offering nothing in return. While Facebook and Google have both made public statements expressing their privacy practices and promising to take data collection practices seriously, some experts believe that companies are not sufficiently incentivized to make major changes.

Elijah Labby was a Reporter with Broadband Breakfast. He was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and now resides in Orlando, Florida. He studies political science at Seminole State College, and enjoys reading and writing fiction (but not for Broadband Breakfast).

Privacy

National Plan Required For Consumer Privacy, Congresswoman says

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of Suzan DelBene from C-Span

April 1, 2021 — A Congresswoman from Washington State, who introduced federal legislation that would be the first national consumer privacy law if adopted, says the federal government is being outpaced by some states that are implementing their own consumer privacy legislation.

“There is a significant problem with consumer privacy in the US,” said Representative Suzan Delbene on Tuesday during a New Democratic Network event. Delbene introduced her Information Transparency, and Personal Data Control Act, a wide ranging federal privacy legislation, on March 10. Delbene is the vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, and is the chair of the House New Democrat Coalition caucus.

There is no federal data privacy law, which has forced some states to pursue their own consumer data policies. That includes California and, recently, Virginia. Some have said the concern is that there will be a patchwork of different privacy legislation that may end up just confusing Americans.

“We need a uniform set of rights for consumers and businesses standards to follow in the digital world,” DelBene said.

The bill states that companies must provide privacy polies in plain language, must allow users to opt-in for personal information gathering, must disclose who personal information is being shared with, and must submit to privacy audits every two years. The federal law would also give the government the ability to preempt existing state laws.

Simon Rosenberg, president of New Democrat Network, said about the bill that, “together, we have a lot of work to do in the coming years to restore the promise of the Internet. One of the areas of greatest need is creating a single working privacy standard for the United States.

“In her bill, the approach Representative DelBene takes to protecting Americans’ privacy is smart, measured, and will undoubtedly be highly influential in shaping the approach Congress takes in the days ahead. It is a very welcome addition to the vital debate underway about our digital future,” Rosenberg added.

The purpose of this bill is to ensure that privacy policies are transparent and clear. “Many consumers are given lots of information with lots of legal terms, that leads them to click the accept button without knowing what they have signed up for,” DelBene said.

“There is an urgent need for consumers to understand what data is being shared,” she added. “We want to make sure there is enforcement. The law says that this will be the responsibility of the Federal Trade Commission, so the FTC must have the resources to do this.

“I think my bill is focused on privacy specifically because I think it is foundational. We build on important things, such as AI, facial recognition, and all the other issues we need to address. If we don’t start addressing the issues of data privacy, it will be hard to imagine how it will the expansion of laws to address a broader set of issues that need to get ahead of.”

Congresswoman DelBene believes the bill can be bipartisan, but she wants to make sure Congress understands its importance. “I’m not sure Congress understands these issues, so it takes a collective effort to push it forward.”

DelBene says she’s confident that Congress will follow the bill, despite many congresspeople who she said are hesitant to take that first step.

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Privacy

Attach Strings To Data Collection To Combat Surveillance Capitalism, Experts Suggest

Samuel Triginelli

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Photo of Marietje Schaake from the European Parliament

March 29, 2021 – Laws addressing how much data can be collected should be among new regulations that must ensure data collection from big technology companies doesn’t harm Americans, according to a March 17 panel of academics at the South by Southwest conference.

The era of corporate self-regulation is now up, said Marietje Schaake of the Standford University Cyber Policy Center and panelist at SXSW conference discussing the “techno-democratic” approach to Big Tech, including what to do about surveillance capitalism.

Surveillance capitalism is an economic system centered on commodifying personal data with the core purpose of profit-making.

“We have heard many pledges, many promises, and good intention offers for solutions for self-regulatory initiatives. And the time is out for those,” she said.

Schaake said it is time the government attach consequences to data collection to the detriment of the public and to set clear limits on collection practices.

“We have tried for too long, and it has led to several distractions and lost time to make sure that the rule of law is leading and that there are enforceable accountable, transparent expectations placed on these companies,” she said.

Joan Donovan, a social scientist at the Harvard Kennedy School, said what’s critical is how much data tech companies should be allowed to collect and under what conditions should they sell it to ensure rights aren’t violated.

“The tech sector as it is built now, relies on harvesting so much data about an individual that their products and the entire economy they are built on could not exist” if there were robust rights and privacy protections in place, Donovan said.

She said the discussion about regulating these businesses should include moving from a focus on protecting enterprise to protecting human rights.

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Privacy

House Energy and Commerce Chairman Frank Pallone Calls for Update to Children’s Privacy Legislation

Derek Shumway

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March 11, 2021 – House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., on Thursday called for an update to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act at subcommittee hearing on “Kids Online During COVID: Child Safety in an Increasingly Digital Age.”

“The challenges children face online existed before the pandemic, but it’s only gotten worse,” he said.

Visiting in person with extended family and friends have so far become a thing of the past as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Many other in-person activities have been replaced with video games, social media, and other video services.

Kids’ screen time has doubled during the pandemic, said Pallone. The effects of too much screen time can increase instances of anxiety, sleep deprivation, obesity, and cyber bullying, he said.

The increased screen time due to the pandemic has turned consumers into victims of what he called harassment and dark pattern manipulation led by advertisers. Children cannot defend themselves like adults in managing these predatory practices, he said.

“Despite laws to protect children’s privacy, data collection and tracking of children is disturbingly prevalent.” He went on to criticize many apps targeting children on mobile devices are notorious for collecting personal information, which is then bought and sold, resulting in advertising meant to manipulate children.

He said that digital ad spending specifically targeting children was expected to reach $1.7 billion this year. COPPA, which hasn’t been updated since 2013, needs to be updated because, he said, internet companies have since continued to target children.

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