Highlights From the FTC’s Privacy Roundtable Part 3

Note: This article originally appeared on the J.C. Neu & Associates Blog

This is part 3 of highlights from the FTC’s December 7th Privacy Roundtable. Part 1 covered the panel on "Exploring Existing Regulatory Frameworks," and Part 2 covered the panel on "Benefits and Risks of Collecting, Using, and Retaining Consumer Data" This post highlights comments from "Consumer Expectations and Disclosures" and "Information Brokers."

Disclaimer: I took notes using my Twitter account. About halfway through the "Benefits and Risks" panel, Twitter decided that I was a spammer, and shut down my account. I was mad, and it meant that I did not cover the whole session.

Benefits and Risks of Collecting, Using, and Retaining Consumer Data

  • Lorrie Faith Cranor,Associate Professor of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University commented on consumers’ state of ignorance regarding how information flows, much like an unseen underground river. "Most people do not understand how information flows," or "what a third-party cookie is."
  • Alan Westin Professor Emeritus of Public Law and Government, Columbia University referenced several of his studies which indicated that "…people are not prepared to equate [the need for] behavioral marketing with [funding] free services, and that "most people believe that they’re being abused," but there was general consensuses that most people surveyed also believed that they were protected by law and regulations that do not actually exist. In the meantime, Mr. Westin’s research also indicates that most people are no longer willing to trade privacy for freebies on the internet, because of the disconnect between "free" services and the fact that personal information pays for most of it.
  • Alan Davidson, Director of U.S. Public Policy and Government Affairs for Google emphasized that the industry is trying to educate consumers and give them the tools they need in order to control their privacy, as evidenced by Google’s dashboard, for instance. He suggested that the audience Bing "Google Dashboard" for more information.
  • Jules Polonetsky Co?Chair and Director of the Future of Privacy Forum made reference to the results of several large surveys conducted by his organization. For instance, one indicated that there is a substantial public misconception about what "Behavioral Advertising" is. Among the handful of survey respondents who had heard the term, all of them mistook "Behavioral Advertising" for the concept of subliminal advertising. His organization is also attempting to generate symbols explaining how personal information is used, an approach endorsed by Privacy Commons and other groups.
  • My apologies to Joel Kelsey, Policy Analyst for the Consumers Union, and Adam Thierer, President of University of Pennsylvania, Annenberg School for Communication. Each of these individuals actively participated, but unfortunately I was unable to capture their thoughts because I was under a temporary Twitter ban at the time.

Information Brokers

Short editorial: This session was by far the least enlightening.

  • Jennifer Barrett, Global Privacy and Public Policy Officer for Acxiom started off the panel by discussing what constituted "sensitive personal information." She replied that Acxiom classifies "sensitive information" is any information which could contribute to identity theft, whereas "restricted information" is an unlisted phone number, for example.
  • Rick Erwin, President of Experian Marketing Services explained that they consider information on children, older Americans, and self-reported ailment data to be "sensitive," adding that Experian has "three decades of experience using sensitive information for marketing," and is able to adequately balance the interests of marketers and consumers. Mr. Erwin also discounted the harms of marketing, saying "we can’t point to deep consumer harm based on bad advertising."
  • Pam Dixon, Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum disagreed. She contended that the definition of "sensitive information" is difficult at best because otherwise benign information can be aggregated to create sensitive information. In regards to health information, getting consent from consumers is almost illusory because consumers have no way of knowing how the information will be used in the future. Informed consent is impossible without telling consumers what "boxes" they will be put in. Consumers need the right to know on what lists they will appear, for how long, and they must have the right to revoke their consent. Pam Dixon contended that "we need to make Opt Out work for consumers," and that opting out should always be free.
  • In response, Jennifer Barrett insisted that the Information Broker industry needs no further regulation: "We’re already very regulated," she said.
  • Jim Adler, Chief Privacy Officer and General Manager of Systems for Intelius explained that they offer special opt-out services to government officials.
  • Chris Jay Hoofnagle, Lecturer in Residence at the University of California Berkeley School of Law was scheduled to participate but was unable due to technical difficulties.

The FTC has posted the webcast if you missed it.  The next Roundtable is scheduled for January 28, 2010 in Berkeley, CA and will also be broadcast online.

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