Apparently we can wait: Obama's online privacy effort

It has now been just about a year since the Obama administration put forth its online privacy blueprint. In spite of a title on the announcement that insisted "We Can't Wait," not much has happened since the blueprint was published. Meanwhile, things are heating up on the online privacy front in Europe, and the contrast between the United States and European viewpoints is and is not stark.

The Obama administration blueprint starts off with the clearly nonsensical statement that "The consumer data privacy framework in the United States is, in fact, strong." There is nothing that could remotely be called a "consumer data privacy framework" in the United States. Every company that collects information about you and me is free to do whatever it wants with that data, except for some narrow exceptions around medical records and quirky things like videotape rental records, and there is an attempt to dilute even that exception. There is nothing in the United States that says you, as the person some data is about, has any right to know that the data exists or what it will be used for (never mind having any say in how it can be used).

[ DATA PRIVACY DAY 2013: Microsoft releases privacy trends study ]

The European Union (EU) rules are a lot stronger and may be getting stronger still, and many in the United States are not happy about the prospect.

The broad picture that the Obama blueprint paints is not all that different from a surface reading of the EU rules. The Obama blueprint's six consumer rights (individual control, transparency, respect for context, access and accuracy, focused collection and accountability) sound quite like the EU's seven principles (notice, purpose, consent, security, disclosure, access and accountability).

One of the basic differences is in the definition of "accountability." In both the U.S. and the EU a data holder is supposed to be accountable for abiding by the principles of consumer rights. In the EU, governmental authorities have big sticks they can use to punish data holders who do not do their part -- up to 2% of a company's annual revenue under the proposed updates.

In the United States there is far less of a governmental role. The Obama blueprint proposes to strengthen the role of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in enforcement, but historically the FTC has been more of a kitten than a tiger when it comes to enforcement. Most of the time the FTC gets a company to agree to not be bad again and to pay a fine that represents a small percentage of the extra money the company made from the violation. The Obama blueprint wants "a sustained commitment of all stakeholders to address consumer data privacy issues as they arise from advances in technologies and business models." "Commitment" is all well and good, but a few big sticks might meaningfully increase the level of commitment.

Having said all that, some movement toward the Obama blueprint would be nice. I can understand why there was not much movement in an election year but, with President Obama re-elected, it is time to move. Some progress here might avert the worst of the trade war with the EU predicted by one U.S. official. It might also be good for you and me, whose data is cached in places we have no idea even exist.

Disclaimer: Harvard, I assume, obeys EU rules when in the EU but has expressed no opinion on either the Obama blueprint or the updated EU rules. So the above is my desire for a tiny bit of privacy.

Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.

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