Government Control of the Internet

Ever gone to an Internet shopping site to look at a product and then when at another site noticed an ad specifically for the product, or similar products you just looked at? This is the by-product of a technology used by a number of ad-serving systems on the Internet. Do you find this intrusive?

This type of tracking has been hammered by many on Capitol Hill as an invasion of privacy, and you might agree, but what would you like done about it? More precisely, do you want bureaucrats in Washington, who can’t seem to get anything right, fixing it?

Internet Bill of Rights

When the government gets involved in the online world we face a slippery slope of federal regulations which we might believe offers us a semblance of privacy-protection, but also limit the freedoms of the Internet that we’ve come to expect. Let’s be honest, the government is less interested in protecting our privacy than they are controlling what we access and knowing what we’re doing; think Patriot Act on steroids.

Today the White House issued a proposed Internet “bill of rights” that they claim will offer consumers online privacy protection but would likely end up with the government having power to police the Internet; the net result being far fewer freedoms for the consumer and more “Big Brother” watching over us.

This new privacy bill of rights starts as a volunteer process, but President Barack Obama said it was part of a broader plan to give Americans more control over how their personal data was used on the Internet. Read between the lines: Americans won’t gain more control, the government will.

Responding to the repeated attempts by the government to regulate Internet commerce, Google, Yahoo and Microsoft have agreed to implement “Do Not Track” technology on web browsers, after pressure began to ramp up in 2010.

“American consumers can’t wait any longer for clear rules of the road that ensure their personal information is safe online,” Obama said in a statement. “As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy. That’s why an online privacy Bill of Rights is so important.”

Most of us have seen signs of Internet tracking and many who haven’t have suspected it for some time; that in itself may represent a form of pseudo-privacy invasion, but what the government doesn’t reveal is that such tracking has been going on in the real world for decades and there has never been such fake concern. Businesses often sell their customer lists to companies that sell mailing lists to other companies. Let’s say you purchase a toy for your dog from business who in-turn sells your name to to a mailing list company as a “pet person.” Other companies purchase lists from the mailing list vendor and suddenly junk mail shows up in your mailbox from other pet supply companies; this is nothing new and no one in the federal government has been wringing their hands for a consumer bill of rights to prevent this exchange of information.

36 state attorneys general sent a letter to Google yesterday voicing concern over their intent to begin sharing users’ personal information across Google products starting March 1st without providing consumers an opt-in option. Have you ever been given the option as to whether your name and address would be included on a mailing list?

Many Internet companies have adopted privacy policies, yet the Congress and a number of consumer advocacy groups have complained that the lack of transparency from these companies represents an invasion of privacy. Selective outrage? It would seem so.

The White House stated that the U.S. Commerce Department will “work with,” code words for pressure, companies to develop “enforceable” privacy policies based on the bill of rights.

One of the great aspects of the Internet is the “open” nature of the technology. Once the government starts building Internet fences, controlling your routes and, worse yet, auditing the access providers, you can bet that under the guise of protecting your privacy it’ll be the government that is tracking your actions.

Even Facebook is beginning to shrink from the pressure being put on by the bureaucrats. Facebook’s Chief Privacy Officer, Erin Egan, said the social networking site looked forward to helping develop enforceable codes of conduct that would balance “the public’s demand for new ways to interact and share.”

Many who’ve advocated for the open freedom of the Internet are beginning to buckle under the pressure being exerted in Washington. The Digital Advertising Alliance, a self-regulatory body representing media and marketing trade associations, promised to start work on tools for Internet browsers so consumers can control data tracking and make them available within nine months.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called the do-not-track option “the clearest articulation of the right to privacy by a U.S. president in history, but added, “But there are real concerns about implementation and enforcement.”

Make no mistake, if allowed to self-patrol, the Internet industry will likely leave a few doors cracked open, but the alternative is to allow the government in. Once the state or federal government begins regulating Internet activity at the level of the individual it will never be the same.

Internet Bill of Rights

Obama’s privacy bill of rights starts with seven rules that consumers should expect be implemented by online companies:

  • Individual Control: Consumers have a right to exercise control over what personal data organizations collect from them and how they use it.
  • Transparency: Consumers have a right to easily understandable information about privacy and security practices.
  • Respect for Context: Consumers have a right to expect that organizations will collect, use and disclose personal data in ways that are consistent with the context in which consumers provide the data.
  • Security: Consumers have a right to secure and responsible handling of personal data.
  • Access and Accuracy: Consumers have a right to access and correct personal data in usable formats, in a manner that is appropriate to the sensitivity of the data and the risk of adverse consequences to consumers if the data are inaccurate.
  • Focused Collection: Consumers have a right to reasonable limits on the personal data that companies collect and retain.
  • Accountability: Consumers have a right to have personal data handled by companies with appropriate measures in place to assure they adhere to the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.

While companies can voluntarily choose whether or not to adopt these principles, those that do not could face enforcement action for straying from the principles. The federal government always seems more effective when they implement a carrot-and-stick approach. The message is simple: come along quietly or we’ll drag you there kicking and screaming.

In a not-so-veiled threat the Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz said a failure to meet privacy commitments once adopted could be a deceptive act or practice, warranting FTC fines or other action. Mr. Leibowitz said that he expected Internet companies to come on board as strong privacy protections encourage trust in Internet commerce which “in turn fuels growth of the cyber economy and all other uses of the Internet.”

The Internet has for the better part of its history been a Wild West, no-holds-barred environment. You must approach the online world as a place where privacy is at least somewhat compromised and operate accordingly. We have laws on the books that state that financial information, such as credit card numbers and personal identification data must be protected, yet we read nearly every week about some breach in the system that allows such information to be “hacked.” The motto to tread lightly and trust little is something most of us can relate to when it comes to the Internet.

Everyone would like the online world to be more secure, but if you believe that the federal government can accomplish this you need to remember that it is the federal government itself that leaks information like a sieve. If the federal government is going to set rules for the protection of online privacy we’re all lost. More importantly, once the federal government gets its hands around the throats of Internet companies you can be sure that while your personal information might be safe from an online retailer, it’ll be wide open to government officials.

Internet businesses only care about tracking your online activity in hopes of selling you a product; they don’t care about what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. How will you feel when your government knows that you’re doing something they “feel” isn’t good for you? Perhaps they’ll see that you purchased two pounds of summer sausage and decide you need to be rated in a different class in your health care cooperative. Maybe you’ll feel better protected when the federal government reports your online purchases to your state so they can come after you to collect unpaid sales tax. You purchased two bags on lawn fertilizer online but you only have a postage-stamp sized lot; are you planning on building a bomb? Well we better alert the FBI just in case.

Make no mistake, when the government gets involved in the Internet your privacy will not be secured, it’ll just be redirected into the hands of those who are looking out for your better interests and that’s the greatest threat to your personal privacy and freedom.