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Mozilla CEO On The Best Way To Protect Our Privacy Online

First Posted: 03/11/11 08:29 AM ET Updated: 05/25/11 07:35 PM ET

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Amidst new concerns over the safety of personal data on the web, Mozilla CEO Gary Kovacs argued that technological tools, rather than government regulation, should be used to better safeguard users’ privacy online.

"I never rely on the government to lead something, it just takes too long," he said in an interview with The Huffington Post. "Capitalism works."

Yet privacy experts counter that regulators must intervene to ensure consumers’ interests are taken into account together with companies’ priorities.

“The FTC and a bunch of other folks asked industry to self-regulate over the last several years and it’s actually gotten exponentially worse,” said Mary Hodder, chairman of the Personal Data Ecosystem Consortium. “I don’t think companies can control themselves and do the right thing in the face of getting all this user data.”

Mozilla is one of several companies taking note of renewed government efforts to tackle online privacy: In a report released late last year, the FTC chastised companies for their failure to more quickly address privacy issues--warning "this could be the last clear chance to show that self-regulation can...protect consumers' privacy"--and endorsed a "do not track" system that would allow users to disable targeted advertising.

Mozilla, along with companies like Microsoft and Google, responded by providing a "do not track" tool that lets people opt out of online behavioral tracking.

The organization is also working on a feature that helps users identify who's tracking them: as they browse the web, individuals will be able to monitor, in real-time, any companies watching their activity, with the option to block them.

"Our position isn't that any of this behavior should not exist," Jay Sullivan, Mozilla's vice president of products, said in reference to targeted advertising. "It's that the user should understand what's happening and be in control of it."

Kovacs noted that online privacy has taken on new urgency as more aspects of our identities--from our movie preferences to our relationships to our purchases--migrate to the web. Companies have played fast-and-loose with such consumer data, fueling privacy concerns.

"What we used to do on the web is search for information. We don't do that exclusively anymore," Kovacs explained. "The problem is there have been some pretty egregious instances of privacy breaches that have caused lot of folks to lift their heads...People are stepping up and saying, 'What's happening to my identity up there?' It's probably long overdue."

Just as our behavior on the Internet has changed drastically, the web itself has also been reshaped by the rise of apps running on separate operating systems, such as Apple's iOS, Google's Android, Microsoft's Windows Mobile, and others.

"The Internet is being fractured," said Kovacs.

Kovacs warned the shift creates new challenges for developers, who must build apps for the disparate ecosystems, while consumers may also be losing out.

"Users don't get the power of millions of web developers," he explained. "Now they have to choose: do I live in an Apple world or in a Google world?"

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