Online privacy quickly becoming key issue for lawmakers, activists

Online privacy is a hot conversation topic these days.

Facebook and Google are updating their privacy settings. Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) are working on broad privacy legislation. Advocacy groups are ramping up their calls for more strict privacy standards on the Web. 

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The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is holding its long-awaited first privacy roundtable Monday. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has to address the issue in its national broadband recommendations, due to Congress in February.

“The gap between innovation and privacy safeguards is growing,” said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“Why haven’t we seen more attention paid to these critical issues?”

Speaking at the Innovation Economy Conference this week, federal Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra acknowledged privacy is still a big question for broadband-based information networks, but putting the right measures in place will “spur a great deal of networks on the Internet as a platform” — for banking and health management, for example.

“We will not move forward unless we get privacy right,” he said.

Blair Levin, head of the FCC’s task force that is putting together a national broadband strategy, said privacy is such a broad area that the FCC does not have the necessary expertise to chart a foolproof path in its forthcoming plan. But he said it is an area that should be addressed.

“Over the next 10 years, the single biggest driver of innovation — other than mobile — will be personal data,” he said.

That personal data is the lifeblood for tech heavyweights Facebook and Google. Lobbyists for both companies this week touted their new tools, designed to give consumers more control over how their data is shared.

“Privacy is our No. 1 challenge,” said Tim Sparapani, Facebook’s public policy director. “It also happens to be our No. 1 opportunity.”

Tuesday night, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced in a blog post that users will soon be able to control who sees each individual piece of content they post or upload to the site. Zuckerberg asked users to review and update their privacy settings over the next few weeks as the changes are rolled out.

Sparapani said Facebook is such a new technology that missteps tend to be sensationalized, which leads to knee-jerk reaction and regulation.

Google recently introduced a “dashboard” showing users what information the company has about them. Pablo Chavez, Google senior policy counsel, said the company has realized that “it’s much better to be very transparent” about its practices.

Behavioral-targeted advertising, which tracks consumers’ online activity to serve ads related to their surfing habits, is the biggest concern to regulators.

Boucher, Stearns and Rush have said they are most worried about companies collecting personal data without the consumers’ knowledge.

In March, Google launched “interest-based advertising,” but allows consumers to opt out altogether.

Facebook, which now has 350 million users, is trying to make the distinction between first- and third-party advertising sellers on websites. Facebook has hundreds of thousands of applications developed by third parties, but says it does not sell users’ information to them.

“We call it targeted ads rather than behavioral-targeted ads because it’s information users have voluntarily provided to us,” Sparapani said. “Most people don’t realize that when they go to a website, there are 10, 15 to 20 companies serving ads, selling ads, selling data and collecting data — and those aren’t the company you went to visit.”

Ari Schwartz, a privacy lobbyist for the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), said he has no problems with online advertising, “But the discussions in Washington assume that (behavioral-targeted) is the only kind of online advertising.”

In fact, it only makes up 5 percent of advertising on the Web. Still, studies show that between 50 and 75 percent of Internet users are worried about how their data is collected and used.

On Thursday CDT plans to launch a “Take Back Your Privacy” campaign to encourage consumers to demand improved privacy tools from Internet companies.

More meetings for commissioners

Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) introduced a bill this week that would allow three or more FCC commissioners to meet together at the same time.

Under the 1934 Communications Act, only two commissioners can have private discussions at once. The law was designed to ensure any meetings between three or more of the five-member panel would be open to the public.

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But some commissioners have been protesting that rule, saying it prevents them from hammering out agreements quickly or discussing the details of an order in a roundtable-like manner. Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps, the senior member of the panel, has complained to Congress about the inefficiencies the rule causes.

 During an interview with Hillicon Valley on C-SPAN last week, Republican Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, one of the newest members, agreed.

“I think it would be nice if instead of empowering our staff to go have meetings together, we could actually do it ourselves,” she said.

Kim Hart can be found on The Hill’s technology blog, Hillicon Valley, located at http://thehill.com/hillicon-valley