Commerce Department tackles online privacy

The Commerce Department report, which has been approved by the White House, is intended to guide internet companies and marketers, as well as lawmakers and policy makers, as they develop a new framework to safeguard online privacy without stifling internet commerce.

It also will inform the work of a group on online privacy and internet policy that was created inside the White House’s National Science and Technology Council in October and shares the same goal.

“America needs a robust [online] privacy framework that preserves consumer trust in the evolving internet economy, while ensuring the web remains a platform for innovation, jobs, and economic growth,” Commerce Department Secretary Gary Locke said in a statement. “Consumers must trust the internet in order for businesses to succeed online.”

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Commerce Department officials hope their report also will lay the groundwork for discussions with foreign governments to align global standards for acceptable industry behavior. The European Union, for one, has said it plans to update its online privacy regulations to give consumers more control over their personal data.

The Commerce Department report does not take a position on the FTC’s Do Not Track proposal, which is at the center of a debate over how to give consumers more control over their personal data online. The tool most likely would take the form of a browser setting that would let consumers signal to websites that they do not want to be tracked or want only limited tracking.

Although privacy watchdogs have welcomed the FTC’s proposal, the online advertising industry has warned that allowing consumers to turn off all online tracking could have unintended consequences because tracking is used to deliver all sorts of personalized web content—from sports scores to stock prices—and not just internet ads.

The Commerce Department also recommended national standards on data breaches, requiring companies to adopt strong measures to protect electronic records and notify consumers in the event of a breach. And it called for a review of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, a 1986 law that extended wiretapping restrictions to eMail messages and other data files but is now considered out of date.

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