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“Bill of Rights” Aims to Give Consumers More Control over Personal Info Online

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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The White House on Thursday vowed to raise the level of privacy on the Web through a series of personal data protection measures it calls the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. The initiative calls for, among other things, companies that gather information online to provide users with greater control over what information is collected and how it’s used.

The framework is also intended to ensure that companies use customer data in the same context that it was collected. For example, it’s expected that online retailers disclose consumers’ names and home addresses to shippers in order to fulfill customers’ orders. This is a consistent use of the information, much like a social network using member profile information to improve and add services. When an online retailer or social network discloses personal information about its customers or members to a third-party marketing company, then the data is in danger of being used out of context to sell consumers things in which they have expressed no interest.

The Obama administration’s bill of rights is part of a larger Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World report (pdf) that the administration issued Thursday to encourage the development of enforceable privacy policies both nationwide and internationally. In a statement, the White House expressed the hope that Congress would pass laws that create consistency in how personal information may be used rather than leaving it up to individual companies.

Even if the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights doesn’t lead to legislation, the hope is that industry groups will use the document’s provisions to create more uniform rules for managing personal information. The White House holds up private-sector Internet standards-setting organizations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as examples to follow, given their use of transparent processes to set Internet-related technical standards. Such standards support an ever-growing growing range of online services and applications, as well as the trillions of dollars in global commerce, the report says.

Adherence to any new privacy rules would be voluntary, but the White House wants to give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) the power to enforce penalties on those who promise to follow these rules yet fail to protect personal information entrusted to them. “We must reject the conclusion that privacy is an outmoded value,” President Obama points out in the report’s introduction.

In the coming weeks, the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration is expected to meet with companies, organizations and individuals impacted by the new privacy guidelines. The White House’s report points out that it does not intend to hinder the U.S.’s online retail business, estimated to be worth $145 billion annually. “New uses of personal data in location services, protected by appropriate privacy and security safeguards, could create important business opportunities,” according to the report.

Image courtesy of Sam Burt Photography, via

Larry Greenemeier About the Author: Larry Greenemeier is the associate editor of technology for Scientific American, covering a variety of tech-related topics, including biotech, computers, military tech, nanotech and robots. Follow on Twitter @lggreenemeier.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Forsythkid 6:43 am 02/24/2012

    I have zero confidence in any government sponsored bill.

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  2. 2. sauIt 7:59 am 02/24/2012

    Benign and selfless governance by correct-minded, Progressive, multicultural and fair people represented by the Democratic Party and the Obama Administration would be well worthy of your confidence, were they not being deceitfully hobbled by Corporate-controlled religious-nut Conservative Republicans, who are actively and disgustingly being enabled 24-7-365 by a nationally-accessible television news channel named after a small dog-like creature.

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  3. 3. lnquiringConstructivist 8:33 am 02/24/2012

    Humans have always been exploited by the tool-makers, who dangle their shiny new trinkets in order to entice, yet also hypnotize.
    All technological developments should be done under license, in order to insure that exploitation does not occur. Uncontrolled invention and innovation can be too dangerous if done without oversight.

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  4. 4. N a g n o s t i c 9:19 am 02/24/2012

    I fail to comprehend why government needs to protect individuals from making decisions, even unwelcome ones.

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  5. 5. Jerzy New 9:49 am 02/27/2012

    Much overdue bill, given how big corporations sneak into our privacy.

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