Obama administration backs voluntary guidelines for web privacy

February 23, 2012

The Obama administration on Thursday announced voluntary guidelines for Web companies to protect consumers’ privacy online, a win for Google, Facebook and other Internet giants that have fought against heavier federal mandates.

The White House did not include a much-debated “do not track” rule that would have forced companies to offer users the choice of stopping advertisers from tracking their activities across the Web. While the Obama administration will not require the technology, Web firms, including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and AOL have agreed to voluntarily embed “do not track” buttons in Web browsers, government officials said.

In what it has dubbed the “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” the administration outlined several principles. It said users should have more control over data collected about them and how the information is used; consumers should be able to limit the collection of personal information, especially about children; and users should be able to correct false information about them.

“As the Internet evolves, consumer trust is essential for the continued growth of the digital economy,” Obama said in a statement. “For businesses to succeed online, consumers must feel secure.”

The move by the U.S. government gives Web giants leverage in their negotiations with regulators in Europe, where the companies can now make a stronger case for voluntary rules, analysts say.

The Federal Trade Commission will police companies that agree to the guidelines. The administration said that it will seek legislation to codify the rules and that the Commerce Department will soon bring together companies, consumer groups and academics to come up with more specific codes of conduct.

A recent spate of controversial practices by Web companies have sparked concerns about privacy among state attorneys general, lawmakers and consumer groups.

Google, for instance, announced that it would begin next week to pull data from all of its sites to create profiles of users who have signed into their accounts. The search giant also has been accused of circumventing mobile-device browsers’ privacy protections so that it could track the activities of consumers.

In light of such controversies, privacy groups had urged government officials to adopt the “do not track” mandate, but software developers and advertising firms have decried the technology as expensive and difficult to implement.

In a news briefing Wednesday, White House officials said a consortium of advertisers had come up with anti-tracking software that companies can choose to implement.

“Any ‘do not track’ mechanism needs to be robust and meaningful and cannot be more of the same self-regulatory system,” said Pam Dixon, executive director of consumer group the World Privacy Forum.

The biggest Web firms — including Google, Yahoo!, Microsoft and AOL — are expected to adopt the guidelines, government officials said. Many of those firms say they offer consumers anti-tracking options.

At the same time, the firms have urged government officials to resist legislation that could hamper their ability to tap the lucrative behavioral marketing business.

The White House report doesn’t specifically address privacy on mobile devices — an area that firms are eager to protect from federal regulation. On Thursday, Apple, Google, Amazon and Microsoft agreed to clearly disclose the privacy policies of app developers at their app stores.

The FTC reported last week that Google, Apple and most mobile app developers do not offer any information about how they collect information about users.

Cecilia Kang is a national technology reporter, writing about tech and Internet policies at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission and how regulations affect businesses and consumers.
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