The White House Gets Behind New Internet Privacy Efforts

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On Wednesday, the Obama administration went very public about online privacy.

President Barack Obama's top advisor on communications and information policy, Lawrence E. Strickling, told the Senate Commerce Committee that the administration now backs enforcement of a new "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" by the Federal Trade Commission. The endorsement comes months after the President's Internet Policy Task Force issued a paper that set a rough framework for navigating the tricky balance between consumer privacy interests and commerce. It also comes after a series of House bills on the issue, and as Sen. John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat, crafts a bill that would ultimately lead to new protections for consumers.

The Obama Administration's endorsement heralds new federal oversight into the technology industry—one of the President's chief financial supporters. Only last month, President Obama dashed out to Northern California and Oregon for a round of meetings with CEOs of firms like Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Intel that many interpreted as a fundraising prelude to the 2012 reelection effort.

In December, the Department of Commerce called for the consideration of a "privacy bill of rights," which would force companies to make clear what consumer data they collecting online, and how it will be used. Then, In January, the administration hosted a Stanford conference of cyber-security academic and industry experts. The chief goal: developing a strategy which would push companies to make clear their identities to consumers before they engage in highly sensitive transactions, like checking banking accounts, pulling health records from hospitals, or refilling medical prescriptions.

Wednesday's endorsement by the Obama Administration offers the first tangible outline of what it believes a privacy bill of rights should look like. First, it would empower the Federal Trade Commission to enforce the law, and adapt it to technological shifts. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the world's largest tech firms, notably Microsoft, have supported the efforts. That's partly because they believe the current piecemeal approach to addressing privacy issues is too confusing. In fact, Microsoft has taken the lead, developing a "Do Not Track" mechanism for its new version of Internet Explorer, released this month. Consumer groups have also made the business case for privacy reform, as Strickling noted Wednesday: "Simply put, the inability to distinguish among companies' privacy policies may lead consumers to conclude that all companies engage in equally invasive practices."

Strickling, the assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the Department of Commerce, did not offer further specifics of what a bill would look like. But it appeared to fall in line with efforts from the Federal Trade Commission, which in December suggested that companies begin to offer consumers a do-not-track option.

There's little doubt that at some point, very soon, the federal government will step in with proposed rules regulating Internet tracking.