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Preventing the Next Privacy Disaster

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The Internet is at a crossroads. Down one path lies a future where digital technology enhances constitutional freedoms; spurs innovations in expression and entrepreneurship; and fulfills its ultimate promise of connecting and empowering the world. Down the other? A future where the Internet is turned against users; where government spying runs unchecked, and where innovation is stifled by a closed and locked system, controlled by a handful of entrenched players. The next president will play a key role in determining which path we take. This is the third in a series of entries over the next couple weeks about the critical technology and civil liberties choices facing the next president of the United States. Our complete transition guide for next president is available online here.

The U.S. has some of the weakest consumer privacy protections in the world. That fact was forgotten in the aftermath of the dotcom crash of 2000; the focus was on rebuilding the sector and plans to launch new business models that relied on mining of consumer data were put on the back burner. Eight years later, those business models have become the norm and the lack of privacy protections remains a festering embarrassment. Policymakers have been ambivalent, at best, in tackling the issue of passing a federal baseline privacy law. Without such a law, especially in light of the rapid technological advances we've experienced and our greater interdependence on web-based applications in our day-to-day lives, American's privacy is needlessly put at risk.

The next president steps into a landscape where the technological capacity to collect, store and exchange highly sensitive personal information has exponentially outgrown the legal framework that protects that information. Every day, Americans turn over their sensitive data including financial and health information to companies and are asked to trust that it will be treated fairly and safely.

We've seen how often that trust has been misplaced through a string of seemingly unending, high-profile, privacy breaches. The scary thing about these breaches-- which appeared to begin when data aggregator ChoicePoint allowed criminals to purchase the sensitive data of more than 100,000 Americans in 2005 -- is that the trend probably got its start much earlier. The only reason we learned about ChoicePoint and dozens of other privacy breaches was because of relatively recent California law that required companies to report them.

This is not to say that many Internet companies haven't gotten better. Some of the largest are now providing more easily to use privacy controls for their customers. Some companies have also shown leadership and gone on record in support of a comprehensive privacy law to ensure that consumers can trust the marketplace and that it is fair across industries. It's an encouraging trend.

But we know from years of experience that there will always be companies that push the edge of what's fair and acceptable in terms of privacy -- companies that take advantage of weak legal standards to exploit consumers. These bad actors don't just harm their victims, they threaten the Internet itself, but undermining the trust and confidence that is critical to all serious online transactions.

As the U.S. economy struggles to keep from falling into the abyss, we're seeing in real time the results of what happens during a crisis of confidence. We should not risk a loss of consumer confidence in the Internet, which remains an important engine of innovation and economic growth. We need to enact comprehensive privacy protections in the next Congress.

This is where the next president steps in. It's long past time for consumer privacy protection to become a national priority. We need a president who is committed to ensuring that Americans can be secure in the knowledge that their most sensitive information is protected.

To help ensure that privacy become a national priority the next president should:

• Send a comprehensive consumer privacy bill to Congress in the first 100 days.

• Appoint a Chairman to the Federal Trade Commission who is committed to protecting consumer privacy; and

• Work with Congress to ensure that personal health information is protected by the highest possible standard of privacy, online and off.

Our next president needs to put privacy at the top of his agenda and insist that we all have the privacy protection tools that put consumers in control of their personal information.