Commerce Department tackles online privacy

The Commerce Department proposal would give consumers the opportunity to “opt out” of, or decline, some or all of that data collection and to correct errors in the information. It also would set clearer limits on the use of this information and would require companies to secure the data they gather.

These so-called “fair information principles” would require legislation before they become binding.

In addition to these broad principles, the Commerce Department also envisions specific codes of conduct for particular segments of cyberspace. Those could include social networking websites, services that deliver location-based pitches to mobile devices and web publishers, and marketers that target ads based on a consumer’s browsing activity and other online behavior.

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Those codes of conduct would be voluntary, but enforceable. The FTC could take actions against companies that commit to abiding by the codes and then don’t comply, the Commerce Department proposal says.

In what could become one of the more controversial elements of the Commerce Department plan, the codes of conduct would be developed by internet advertising networks, web publishers and marketers, social networking websites, and other online services, as well as government officials, consumer groups, privacy watchdogs, and others concerned about online privacy.

Those groups would work together under the guidance of a new online privacy office to be created within the Commerce Department. The office would work with the FTC, the White House, and other federal entities.

James Steyer, CEO of the children’s advocacy group Common Sense Media, issued a statement applauding the Commerce Department’s report but suggesting that even more needs to be done to protect the online privacy of children and teens.

“Online privacy is a huge concern for Americans, and it is important that agencies are taking the issue seriously,” Steyer said. “We can’t expect consumers to continue making purchases online unless they are confident that their privacy is being protected, which isn’t the case today.”

He added: “The Commerce Department’s idea of creating a privacy policy office is a good one, and it’s a long time coming. Canada and Europe already have privacy officers responsible for constantly working with key stakeholders to keep privacy policies up to date with ever-changing technologies. This position would be an important step forward in protecting the privacy of consumers in this country, especially our youngest consumers—kids and teens, who also need new laws and broader protections to keep their personal information safe—and we believe it is something that the industry should fully support.”

Common Sense Media launched an online privacy campaign in October with a challenge for industry leaders, policy makers, educators, and parents to safeguard kids’ privacy online.

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