White House Unveils Plans For Consumer Privacy Bill Of Rights

The Obama administration has announced that it will work with Congress on a new series of consumer protections dubbed a “Privacy Bill of Rights” that will detail how Internet companies can handle and use consumers’ personal data. According to the statement from The White House, consumers should have a right to control how their personal information is handled so that businesses can maintain their trust and continue to grow.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” said President Obama of the proposed framework. “By following this blueprint, companies, consumer advocates and policy makers can help protect consumers and ensure the Internet remains a platform for innovation and economic growth.”

The proposed privacy bill of rights comes at a time when consumer web companies are coming under increasing fire for the way they’re accessing private data unbeknownst to users, and, no, we’re not just talking about addressgate here. Recently, Google was accused of bypassing security settings in Apple’s Safari browser to track users as they surfed the web, and Microsoft chimed in to later to confirm that such a thing was happening in its Internet Explorer browser, too. Google is also under pressure because of its plan to consolidate user privacy policies across its various services into one, essentially combining a wealth of disparate data on web users.

Facebook, meanwhile, is almost continually under attack for the way it handles privacy and social sharing, and with the new “frictionless sharing” provided by the OpenGraph platform, it’s also now receiving additional scrutiny on that front.

In addition, the Federal Trade Commission recently became involved in examining consumer privacy issues in mobile applications, saying that parents needed ways to better understand how apps may be using their children’s data.

Following up on the issues of mobile privacy, California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris yesterday moved to enact a privacy deal with six of the biggest web and mobile companies: Apple, Google, HP, Microsoft, RIM and Amazon, that requires app makers to disclose to users how apps plan to use personal data. The disclosures should be easy to understand and available prior to the app download, Harris said.

The White House’s proposed guidelines are somewhat of an extension to that act, but they would apply not just to mobile, but to any data collected by Internet organizations. The administration says that privacy policies should be easy to understand, data should be protected from leaks and hacking attempts and consumers should be able to place “reasonable limits” on the collection and use of their personal data.

The White House also pointed to the recent move by The Digital Advertising Alliance, a marketing trade association, which just committed to providing a “Do Not Track” button for web browsers, something it plans to roll out in the next 9 months. Consumers who click the button, once installed, will be able to prevent (participating) advertisers from collecting data about them.

The U.S. Commerce Department will work with web companies and privacy advocates to establish privacy policies based on this bill of rights, but the code would be voluntary. However, if a company agreed to follow the standards then later violated them, the FTC could file charges.

More info on the plan is available in the full report here. (PDF).