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Apparently we can wait: Obama's online privacy effort
By Scott Bradner
It is now just about a year since the Obama administration out forth their blueprint for online privacy (http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/privacy-final.pdf) In spite of a title on the announcement http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/02/23/we-can-t-wait-obama-administration-unveils-blueprint-privacy-bill-rights) that insisted "We can't Wait" not much has happened since the blueprint was published. Meanwhile things are heating up on the online privacy front in Europe and the contrast between the US and the European viewpoints is and is not stark.
The Administration blueprint starts off with the clearly nonsensical statement that "The consumer data privacy framework in the United States is, in fact, strong." There is nothing that could remotely be called a "consumer data privacy framework" in the US. Every company that collects information about you and me is free to do whatever they want with that data, except for some narrow exceptions around medical records and quirky things like video tape rental records (http://www.accessreports.com/statutes/VIDEO1.htm), and there is an attempt to dilute even that exception (http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr6671). There is nothing in the US that says that you, as the person some data is about, has any right to know that the data exists or what it will be used for - never mind having any say in how it can be used.
The rules in the European Union (EU) are a lot stronger. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_Protection_Directive) and may be getting stronger still and many in the US are not happy about the prospect. (http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/01/proposed-eu-data-protection-reform-could-start-a-trade-war-us-official-says/)
The broad picture the Obama blueprint paints is not all that different from a surface reading of the EU rules. The Obama 6 consumer rights; individual control, transparency, respect for context, access and accuracy, focused collection and accountability sound quite like the EU's 7 principles; notice, purpose, consent, security, disclosure, access and accountability.
One of the basic differences is in the definition of "accountability." In both the US & EU a data holder is supposed to be accountable for abiding by the principles or the consumer rights. In the EU governmental authorities have big sticks they can use to punish data holders who do not do their part - up to 2% of a company's annual revenue under the proposed updates.
In the US there is far less of a governmental role. The Obama blueprint proposes to strengthen the role of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in enforcement but historically the FTC has been more of a kitten than a tiger when it comes to enforcement of its current rules. Most of the time the FTC gets a company to agree to not be bad again and to pay a fine that represents a small percentage of the extra money the company made from the violation. The Obama blueprint wants "a sustained commitment of all stakeholders to address consumer data privacy issues as they arise from advances in technologies and business models". "Commitment" is all well and good, but a few big sticks might meaningfully increase the level of commitment.
Having said all that, some movement towards the Obama blueprint would be nice. I can understand why there was not much movement in an election year but, with Obama reelected, it is time to move. Some progress here might avert the worst of the trade war with the EU predicted by a US official. (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-02/01/eu-data-protection-us-trade-war) It might also be good for you and me, whose data is cached in places we have no idea even exist.
disclaimer: Harvard, I assume, obeys EU rules when in the EU (http://itatti.harvard.edu/) but has expressed no opinion on either the Obama blueprint or the update EU rules so the above is my desire for a tiny bit of privacy.