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.

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