Online Privacy Group Seeks Role in Mapping Out Policy

By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 17, 2008

A group of privacy scholars, lawyers and corporate officials are launching an advocacy group today designed to help shape standards around how companies collect, store and use consumer data for business and advertising.

The group, the Future of Privacy Forum, will be led by Jules Polonetsky, who until this month was in charge of AOL's privacy policy, and Chris Wolf, a privacy lawyer for law firm Proskauer Rose. They say the organization, which is sponsored by AT&T, aims to develop ways to give consumers more control over how personal information is used for behavioral-targeted advertising.

Internet companies have come under fire for tracking consumers' online habits in order to tailor ads relevant to their interests. Lawmakers have held several hearings this year to examine online privacy protections.

President-elect Barack Obama has cited privacy as one of the technology issues his administration would address, setting the stage for a debate over standards for online publishers and advertisers. Obama also said he would appoint the first chief technology officer, who may be charged with making government data more transparent while protecting citizens' privacy. The Future of Privacy Forum will seek to work with the government on these issues.

For example, the group may encourage companies to allow consumers to opt into tracking practices, rather than the typical method of requiring customers to opt out.

In the tightening economy, "advertisers are looking increasingly more to data to decide which marketing campaigns will be cut and which will survive," Polonetsky said. "There's a rush to make deeper decisions that will impact privacy."

A number of groups that examine and advocate for tighter privacy policies already exist, such as the Center for Democracy in Technology and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Mike Zaneis, vice president for public policy for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, which represents online publishers such as Google and Yahoo as well as advertisers such as Verizon, said online privacy issues have long been debated and that "having another voice in this area could help."

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