December 17, 2010 in Nation/World

Self-regulate Web privacy, report says

Jim Puzzanghera Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON – An Obama administration report calling for an online privacy bill of rights shows a growing recognition that consumers need more protection as they surf the Web.

But the proposal also highlights a lack of consensus among policymakers, businesses and consumer advocates about how best to safeguard personal data without harming an Internet economy built on its ability to serve up ads targeted at people’s online behavior.

In an 88-page report, a Commerce Department task force called Thursday for Internet businesses to develop principles to protect consumer data and for a new government office to oversee that and other privacy efforts.

The report, however, stopped short of calling for privacy legislation, which many consumer groups have advocated. Although the task force is open to new laws, the report suggested a policy framework in which companies would voluntarily agree to comply with principles for the use of consumer information.

Companies that failed to live up to those promises could be cited by the Federal Trade Commission for unfair and deceptive practices and fined.

Businesses such as Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. like the idea of a voluntary code of conduct backed by FTC enforcement.

But consumer and privacy advocates said self-regulation, even backed by government enforcement, is not enough.

They want tough privacy legislation, including a requirement for a do-not-track mechanism similar to the popular do-not-call list designed to block phone calls from telemarketers. A recent FTC report endorsed creation of such a mechanism, but the Commerce report was lukewarm on the concept.

“It’s good that the Department of Commerce recognized we have a privacy problem, but the solution isn’t more self-regulation,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection for the Consumer Federation of America. “We’ve tried that and it’s clearly inadequate. We need a privacy law that sets the rules of the road.”

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