FTC Makes Advances Protecting the Privacy of Americans in Big Data Era, with Call for Congress to Rein-in Data Brokers

FTC Makes Advances Protecting the Privacy of Americans in Big Data Era, with Call for Congress to Rein-in Data Brokers

But major concerns loom as report leaves consumers vulnerable to widespread data collection and tracking.   Battles ahead as consumer group presses for action

Statement of Jeff Chester, Executive Director, Center for Digital Democracy

 

The Commission’s new privacy report zeros in on one of the most glaring threats to consumers today—the growth of the online-merged with-offline data collection complex.  In its call for Congress to enact legislation to rein in the data broker industry, the FTC has opened up an important new ‘front’ in the battle to protect consumer privacy.  Today, consumers face an ever growing and largely invisible data apparatus that collects and pools their information 24/7.  The harvesting and sale--often in real-time--of our valuable data, including about our financial and health interests, poses a major threat to consumers.  The FTC’s call for legislation is a digital wake-up call to Congress.

The commission’s recommendation that Do-Not-Track means do not collect, potentially could help create a powerful new privacy tool for consumers.   Overall, the FTC’s call for ensuring the public has greater control over how their data is collected and used online, should prompt industry leaders to rethink how they address protecting consumer privacy.  The FTC's further clarification of what is considered personally identifiable information is also a step forward.

However, we call on the FTC to specifically spell out how to ensure consumers have meaningful “choice” to control the collection and use of their information.  The commission’s overall support for industry self-regulation (such as the largely invisible “icon” placed on ads) is disappointing, and reveals a FTC still too often constrained from effectively protecting the public.  We see this report and the recent White House Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights endorsing what consumer groups have been warning about for years--that the Internet's growing focus on the tracking of individuals, along with the sale of their data by a largely out of view digital marketing industry, requires 21st Century consumer protection safeguards.

 

Other key elements in the report:

The commission’s proposal on affiliates and third-parties also helps rein-in a dizzying digital consumer tracking daisy chain.   Websites that share data with other parts of their company or ad networks require new safeguards.  

Requiring affirmative consent for the collection and use of sensitive information, including on first and third party sites.  This is a positive step forward as consumers increasingly are targeted by financial and health marketers.  But if consumers are to be protected, the FTC (and for financial, the CFPB) must engage in serious enforcement efforts.

Called on the online ad industry (Digital Advertising Alliance, DAA) to work “within the W3C process” on Do-not-Track.  The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) work on Do-not-Track is being potentially undermined by a separate effort organized by the DAA.  Today, the FTC sent a message that it expects the online ad industry to work with the “multi-stakeholder” process established by W3C.  [CDD is a member of the W3C Tracking Protection Group].

The commission resisted calls from the telephone and cable lobby to endorse the controversial Deep-Packet Inspection (DPI) surveillance system.  The FTC plans to hold a workshop and conduct further study on this critical privacy and civil liberties issue, which is prudent.

The report calls for greater protections for teens when they are targeted, something CDD has urged.
 
The commission will expand its focus on mobile privacy, including applications and transactions.