The Barack Obama administration released on Thursday, Feb. 23, a new set of voluntary guidelines called the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights in response to growing concern about how companies are using online data they collect from citizens.

The White House said the bill of rights will serve as a blueprint that gives consumers more control over how their personal information is accessed and used on the Internet.

“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.”

At the White House’s request, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration will convene companies, privacy advocates and stakeholders to enforce the privacy policies based around the new bill of rights. In addition, the Obama administration said it will work with Congress to develop legislation based on the newly released document.

“Although there’s a significant legislative component, the lead focus really is convening multi-stakeholder groups of government, advocates and policymakers to try to hammer out nuanced rules for each industry [and] would then become enforceable by the FTC [Federal Trade Commission],” Jules Polonetsky, co-chair and director of Washington, D.C.-based think tank Future of Privacy Forum, told Government Technology on Thursday.

Public outcry has been common in recent months. Facebook users, for example, have lamented the company’s new Timeline layout that show users’ posts in the distant past, while others have complained about Google’s announcement that beginning in March the company will start to compile user profiles based on usage of its various Web products.

The bill of rights outlines a basic set of guidelines to give consumers the following rights to:

  • individual control;
  • transparency;
  • respect for context;
  • security;
  • access to accuracy;
  • focused collection; and
  • accountability.

According to the White House, big online advertisers like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and AOL, in the administration’s words, “have agreed to comply when consumers decide to control online tracking.” The administration continued: “Companies that make this commitment will be subject to FTC enforcement."

Darren Hayes, a professor at Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems in New York, said Thursday the bill is overdue. Other countries already have passed laws to protect consumer data from being shared, he said.

“Currently the European Union (EU) is considering online legislation that could drastically impact U.S. companies who operate within their borders,” Hayes said in a statement. “The proposed data protection legislation would force companies like Google and Facebook to explicitly inform consumers about how their data is being collected, have these online services erase their information and generally give much greater control back to the consumer.”

Jeff Gould, an expert affiliated with SafeGov.org, and CEO and research director at Peerstone Research, said online privacy controversies surrounding the big Internet companies are occurring too frequently, so there is an urgency to enforce the policy outlined in the White House’s new bill.

“These issues are popping up left and right. And really, the government does need to have more laid out, structured policy for dealing with privacy issues in the cloud,” Gould said. “So this is the right time for them to put this out on the table.”

Chris Wilson, vice president for communications, privacy and Internet policy for TechAmerica — an advocate for the U.S. technology industry — called the bill of rights a “white paper.” The organization “applauds” the Commerce Department’s efforts to bring industry experts together on this issue, Wilson said.

“It is the goal of the technology industry to have consumers feel confident in their online presence and what the Department of Commerce unveiled today will do that by recognizing the revitalized Fair Information Practice Principles that can be reinforced by voluntary industry codes of conduct,” Wilson said in a statement. “Our industry is ready to participate in the ongoing stakeholder process and thank the Department of Commerce for not sacrificing innovation for a heavy-handed regulatory approach.

The Digital Advertising Alliance, whose members include several of the biggest Internet companies, also announced Thursday a "self-regulatory program" for online consumer privacy that will build upon a new set of privacy tools for Web browsers.

Google supported the White House's privacy initiative in a post Thursday on the company's blog about public policy.

Sarah Rich, Staff Writer Sarah Rich  |  Staff Writer

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. Since 2010, Sarah has written for Government Technology magazine and covers a spectrum of public-sector IT topics, including cloud computing, transparency, broadband, and other innovative projects and trends. She currently lives in Sacramento, Calif.