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US watchdog unveils web privacy code
Source: Financial Times
Source Date: Thursday, December 02, 2010
Focus: Electronic and Mobile Government, ICT for MDGs, Internet Governance
Created: Dec 03, 2010

FTC seeks to safeguard data ; Call for 'do not track' mechanism

The US Federal Trade Commission is calling on industry to "do better" to protect the private data of consumers and said it would support a "do not track" mechanism that would affect all websites' user visits.

A report released on Wednesday by the top federal consumer protection watchdog included guidelines for companies that would ensure groups only collected consumer data needed for specific business purposes, retained the data only as long as necessary, and safely disposed of data that was no longer being used.

The FTC report was significant because it represented a broad departure from views expressed by the commission a decade ago, when it believed that self-regulation by companies could adequately protect consumer privacy.

Consumer advocates praised the FTC's approach even though the guidelines will not immediately have a marked impact on corporate behaviour. The FTC has limited authority to enforce the privacy principles, which are voluntary, and is still seeking comment on how a "do not track" programme might be implemented.

Jon Leibowitz, the FTC chairman, said a "legislative solution" would be needed if industry did not step up to the plate. Mr Leibowitz may have allies among both Democrats and Republicans who have said that privacy could be a top priority in the next Congress, including Joe Barton, the Texas Republican who is vying to become chairman of powerful House energy committee. But, given the intensity of political wrangling in Washington, most analysts do not believe that bipartisan agreement on privacy legislation could be reached.

The FTC said in the wide ranging report that the most effective way to allow consumers meaningful choice was to ask companies to honour browser settings that enhanced privacy. Such settings already exist, however, and can in some cases be circumvented by newer tracking "cookies".

The report had been eagerly awaited by businesses and privacy advocates, who say the US has not done enough to monitor data collection practices of companies such as Google and Facebook. Such companies were non-committal in their initial response to the report. "We're supportive of proposals that preserve companies' ability to innovate and offer robust tools for users to control their experiences online," a Facebook spokesman said.

The FTC also proposed that companies provide more choice to consumers about their data practices.

While it said some practices, such as the collection of a customer's e-mail account in order to deliver a product, should not require specific consent, practices that were not "commonly accepted" needed to be "clearly and concisely described".

The commission also recommended improvements in corporate privacy policies and that groups collecting data provide consumers with "reasonable access" to the data that was maintained about them.

Credit: By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington and Joseph Menn in San Francisco


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