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

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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).

Robocall

Lawmakers, FCC Take More Action Against Illegal Robocallers

There are new proposed rules that offer legal protections to those aiding in enforcement efforts against illegal robocalls.

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Rep. Bob Latta, the primary sponsor of the Robocall Trace Back Enhancement Act

WASHINGTON, April 27, 2022 – Regulators and legislators in Washington continued their efforts to curb unlawful telephony use with proposed rules designed to crack down robocalls.

On Wednesday, Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, introduced the Robocall Trace Back Enhancement Act – an amendment to the Pallone-Thune Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act.

If signed into law, the bill would provide legal immunity for a broad range of entities engaging in private efforts to track, surveil, and report on illegal robocalling scams.

The protected parties include registered consortiums that handle call receiving, sharing, and publishing and all voice service providers and any informants that share covered information.

It would also grant the Federal Communications Commission jurisdiction to take enforcement actions based on the information collected during the aforementioned activities.

FCC measures on cease-and-desist letters

In addition to this legislation, as part of her agenda to combat scam calls, on April 26 FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed closing a loophole to the STIR/SHAKEN regime afforded to small telcos.

Most telcos are required to adhere to cease-and-desist orders regarding illegal spam-calls and generally comply with actions taken by the FCC. The loophole in question gave smaller telcos greater latitude in how they chose to respond to FCC requests.

If adopted, the proposed regulation would require small telcos to abide by cease-and-desist orders, participate in robocall mitigation, cooperate with FCC enforcement, and take responsibility for facilitating illegal robocall traffic.

“International robocallers use these gateways to enter our phone networks and defraud American consumers,” Rosenworcel said in a statement, “We won’t allow them to bypass our laws and hide from enforcement.”

The new rule will be voted on at the FCC’s open meeting on May 19.

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Privacy

Federal Privacy Legislation Needed As State Legislation Could Harm Smaller Players, Event Hears

Different state privacy laws stifle competition and places burdens on small companies, experts say.

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Maneesha Mithal (far-left), Sara Collins (middle-left), Lartease Tiffith (middle-right), Brandon Pugh (far-right) on stage at "Beyond the Basics: The Many Pillars of a U.S. Privacy Law"

WASHINGTON, April 25, 2022 – While experts agreed that federal legislators need to take action on comprehensive privacy legislation, they disagreed on the specifics of how such regulation should be enforced.

Though some states have begun to establish their own frameworks for consumer privacy regulation, each framework puts forth different standards that online platforms would have to adhere to. These varied frameworks have raised concerns among many experts who consider a patchwork of legislation to raise the bar of compliance – a bar that could be lowered by federal legislation.

During an R Street panel on Monday, experts from the technology industry weighed in on the matter with their perspectives.

In March, Utah joined  California, Colorado, and Virginia and became the fourth state to successfully pass consumer privacy legislation. Several additional states, including Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut have experienced mixed success with their bills and have not yet signed anything into law.

Lartease Tiffith, executive vice president for public policy at the Interactive Advertising Bureau, said that the US is an outlier among developed countries. “We are one of the few developed countries that [does not have a federal privacy law],” he said. “I think that in order to reflect the same common values as our colleagues who are in Europe and elsewhere around the world, we need [to make] one.”

Beyond the international perspective, Tiffith also emphasized domestic justifications for federal legislation. “I cannot think of a subject matter that is not more under the purview of Congress than interstate commerce,” he said. “The internet is everywhere – it is not limited by borders. So, we need to have one standard, one set of laws. It should not matter where you live – California, Utah, Virginia, Colorado – you should have the same basic privacy rights as anyone, anywhere.”

Various state legislation harder for smaller companies

Tiffith also explained that a patchwork of regulation would hit smaller businesses the hardest. “If you are a small or medium sized business and you are looking at investing more money into your products and service and delivering and reaching customers – you want to do that rather than spending time on hiring more lawyers to deal with ever complicating regulations.

“We need this for the next set of Amazons and Googles of the world to exists,” he said.

While the panelists were able to agree on the fact that current patchwork of laws is not sustainable, they did not agree on how to enforce a federal framework.

A federal body for consumer data protection

Sara Collins, senior policy counsel for internet advocacy group Public Knowledge, voiced benefits to creating a new data protection authority in the US – a body distinct from the Federal Trade Commission – that would focus expressly on matters related to consumer data protection.

Tiffith pushed back, however, arguing that the FTC already does a good job at handling these issues, and is only held back by what he views as under-resourcing. “If you compare the FTC to other protection authorities, they are very under-resourced,” he said. “So, I think instead of us standing up a whole new data protection authority, I think instead, let’s invest that money in the FTC, give them some rules, some limited rulemaking authority, and let’s give them a lot more staff and a lot more money.

“Let them be the cop on the beat,” he said.

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Robocall

FCC Announces Majority of States Now Signed Onto Robocall Investigation Partnership

The FCC signed on five states this month and seven last month.

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Illustration from C-Zentrix

WASHINGTON, April 7, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday it has partnered with further five more state attorneys general to combat illegal robocalls.

The agency said Thursday it had signed on Alaska, California, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Washington state to investigate the robocalls, which can lead to scams. Thursday’s news comes on the heels of a March 28 announcement, when the agency said it signed similar memorandum of understanding with Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Idaho, Kentucky, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wyoming.

Altogether, the agency, which announced the federal-state partnership effort in February, said it has signed on the majority of the United States.

“It shows that we are united when it comes to fighting robocalls—urban, rural, north, south, east, and west,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Today I invite every state and U.S. territory to join this effort and establish information sharing and cooperation structures with the FCC so we can work together to investigate and put an end to spoofing and robocall scam campaigns.”

The agency, which has made fighting illegal robocalls a key mandate, has previously credited states with catching those that allow robocalls.

Earlier this month, the FCC credited the North Carolina Department of Justice in an investigation that identified thinQ Technologies as a “facilitator” of robocalls. The agency, which is working with the Traceback Consortium to identify the culprits, has already sent more than a dozen cease and desist letters to those it has identified in investigations.

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