White House To Coordinate Online Privacy Rules

The Obama administration announced a new effort to protect online consumer privacy Thursday. Officials will ask Internet companies and privacy advocates to agree on rules to protect people from deceptive practices. The "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights" will apply standards — albeit voluntary — for companies to follow.

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NPR's business news starts with online privacy concerns.

The White House is announcing a new effort today, to protect online consumer privacy. The administration is asking Internet companies and privacy advocates to work out voluntary standards and abide by a so-called privacy bill of rights.

NPR's Steve Henn has more.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Most modern Americans know they're being observed online, but figuring out exactly how all this works is tough.

Jonathan Mayer studies online tracking at Stanford.

JONATHAN MAYER: And this can show up in some remarkably sensitive contexts.

HENN: As more companies like Google and Facebook tie our web surfing habits to our social profiles - it all gets dicier.

MAYER: The UK's National Health Service, for quite some time, had Facebook's like button on its disease pages. So if you went to research a medical condition, Facebook not only learned that some user had gone that page. They actually learned it was you in particular. They know, 'cause you have a Facebook account.

HENN: Every big web browser allows users to opt out of third party tracking. Apple's Safari browser is set to block it by default. But last week Jonathan Mayer caught Google circumventing Apple's built in privacy protections.

MAYER: It didn't matter whether you had a Google Account or not - whether you were logged into that account or not.

HENN: The White House's Deputy Chief Technology Officer, Daniel Weitzner, says the fact that millions of Americans are having these kinds of experiences online inspired today's announcement.

DANIEL WEITZNER: They set their web browsers, one way they think they have control over their personal information and it ends up that they don't. That's why principal number one in our Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights is the principal of individual control.

HENN: Yesterday, the digital advertising industry pledged push ahead with a do-not-track option on web browsers that would actually work. And the White House is asking companies to be more transparent about what data they're collecting online and how they'll use it. Companies will have to keep data secure and allow us to inspect our own information - even correct mistakes. But for now at least, these proposed privacy rights won't have the force of law. Instead, the White House is asking businesses and consumer groups to sit down together and hash out voluntary standards.

JEFF CHESTER: I think the White House is coming to the rescue of one of America's most important industries.

HENN: Jeff Chester is at the Center for Digital Democracy.

CHESTER: Right now, companies like Facebook and Google are very worried that it will be the European privacy policy which requires much greater consumer control that will become the dominant global standard.

HENN: The U.S. has no comprehensive digital privacy law. And European regulators are pushing U.S. firms to offer greater privacy protections. Chester says that by getting behind these voluntary U.S. standards the industry will gain a bit of cover. Still, companies that make these privacy commitments will have to live by them.

JON LEIBOWITZ: One of the most critically important things is that these standards are enforceable.

HENN: Jon Leibowitz is chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.

LEIBOWITZ: They're enforceable because if a company says we are not going to track information, then a failure to do that could be a deceptive act or practice.

HENN: The FTC's record of enforcing voluntary industry agreements like this is mixed. Last fall, the agency forced Google and Facebook to sign consent decrees promising to better protect consumer privacy - but already many consumer groups believe Google has violated that deal and they're pressuring the FTC to act again.

Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

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