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New Technologies and Innovations in the Mobile and Online Space, and the Implications for Public Policy

The House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, Competition and the Internet held an educational hearing on June 19, 2012 entitled "New Technologies and Innovations in the Mobile and Online Space, and the Implications for Public Policy." The hearing focused on privacy issues related to mobile, online, and geolocation technologies, as well as private sector efforts to safeguard consumer privacy and whether legislation to impose new regulations is warranted.

Witnesses included: 

Philosophical differences surfaced during the hearing over whether the government needs to take a more proactive approach to protecting consumers’ online privacy.  Subcommittee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) opened the hearing by saying, “There have been astonishing advancements in the delivery of products and services online, and as a result there are privacy implications for a variety of new technologies, some of which were not even in existence a few years ago.”  He went on to say that the speed of innovation highlights how any measure to protect consumers needs to ensure that “innovation is encouraged and not stifled by undue regulatory burdens.”

The witnesses representing industry spoke about the advantages of self-regulation for spurring innovation.  “Any government rules should apply to the way that information is used, not to the technology that collects data,” Morgan Reed said.  “Privacy issues must be addressed in a comprehensive manner, not in a way that creates siloed solutions for each technology, especially since those silos are disappearing every day,” he continued.  Chris Babel, TRUSTe testified saying, “Self-regulation provides a flexible privacy protection framework that can quickly adapt to rapidly evolving technologies.”

On the other hand, Prof. Grimmelman said that consumers should have effective policies available to them and enforcement measures to back these up if violations occur.  “The central goal for privacy policy online and on mobile devices must be empowered consumer choice,” he said.  His testimony included three principles that would go a long way in making real consumer choice a reality.  These should include:

  • The first is usability. A choice that consumers do not know about, cannot find, or cannot understand is no choice at all. Privacy interfaces must be clear and clearly disclosed.
  • The second is reliability. A consumer who has expressed a choice is entitled to expect that it will be honored. This is true whether she has chosen to share or to keep private.
  • And the third is innovation for privacy. Users benefit from good tools to help them manage their privacy. Privacy policy should encourage the development of these technologies, and protect them from interference.

While there are a number of bills pending on various aspects of online privacy, passage of any of these is unknown and generally thought to be unlikely at this point in the congressional session especially during an election year.  The Administration has been active in this area as well having issued several reports on consumer privacy.  (See the March 26th blog for information on the FTC consumer privacy report; the February 23rd blog for information about the White House’s report on data privacy and consumer privacy bill of rights; and the March 12th blog for information on NTIA’s efforts to seek input on the Administration’s consumer privacy bill of rights.)  On July 12, 2012, NTIA will be holding its first multi-stakeholder process meeting to develop a code of conduct to provide transparency in how companies providing applications and interactive services for mobile devices handle personal data.

The archived video of the June 19th House hearing is available here.

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor and report of this issue.


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