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Leslie Harris

Leslie Harris

Posted: December 3, 2009 09:45 AM

The Power of All

What's Your Reaction?

There is something fundamentally wrong in the debate on how to control online privacy when Internet users don't even know what they don't know.  Case in point.  Earlier this year a survey showed that most Internet users believe that the mere presence of the words "privacy policy" on a website means that site cannot share information about them without their written consent.  Wrong.  What users don't know is that the words "privacy policy" can encompass a broad range of policy from true commitments to privacy protection at one end to statements reserving the right to use personal information "in any way and for any purpose.”  

To be sure, consumers enjoy a wealth of free content on the Internet and advertising supports much of that content.  In turn, advertising depends in large part on access to consumer data. But the ability of consumers to make informed decisions about whether, when and to what extent to engage in that exchange remains illusory in most cases.

It's time to change; it's time that Internet users take back their privacy by becoming active, informed advocates for their own online privacy, by using and demanding more robust privacy tools and by using the powerful organizing abilities of the Internet to create politically motivated communities that will demand Congress enact 21st Century consumer privacy laws.  Today my organization, the Center for Democracy & Technology, is launching Take Back Your Privacy, a campaign intended to make both these ideas happen.

The Take Back Your Privacy campaign is focused on both goals because we believe the widespread development and use of innovative privacy enhancing tools as well as new law and FTC enforcement is necessary to achieve better privacy protection.

The campaign's website provides Internet users with information about the state of online privacy, helps educate them about the range of controls that are available and more importantly, will encourage them to collaborate, organize as advocates for their privacy and as developers and users of privacy enhancing tools.  The goal here is not to “own” the campaign and exert some kind of command and control; rather, we want to seed a user driven movement, supported by facts, technological innovation, and collaboration tools. 

As applications and uses for social media explode onto the Internet at a steady rate, we have the opportunity to build in privacy controls that then become part of the innovation of the social web.  This campaign will encourage the development of privacy enhancing tools, not only by helping to cultivate a community of privacy tool developers but also by Internet companies.  Privacy functionality could become a competitive feature among Internet companies; in fact, we've begun to see some early indications of such a market through the development of user-friendly tools that put privacy back in the hands of Internet users; unfortunately, such tools are few and far between and not widely adopted. 

The Internet we would like to see would offer highly visible and easy to use tools allowing for the easy access to privacy preferences.  Other items we'd like to see in a "Take Back Your Privacy" toolbox include: 

Do Not Track List – We should be able to sign up for a Do Not Track List that will tell advertisers, market research firms, ISPs, and other entities not to track our online activity.

Better Browser Privacy Tools--Browsing privacy controls have improved, but are still insufficient for us to take control of our data and trust we are protected when we surf the Web.  Browsers have no built-in options that allow us to opt-out of other types of tracking, such as the downloading of another type of tracking object, a “flash cookie” on to our computers or the use of Web beacons.

Easy Erase - Tools built in to our browser, phone, and computer that make it possible to erase all tracking devices that have been downloaded on to our machine with one click.

Profile Access – Giving users the ability to inspect the data that companies are collecting about them and to be able to edit or erase that data. We can control which information we add to our Facebook profiles, so why can’t we control which information is on the massive, personal profiles that online advertisers are adding to and using every day?

 Targeting a Congress dealing with an economic crisis, health care reform and the troop build up in Afghanistan at first seems like a Herculean task, but privacy remains a bi-partisan issue and the political climate in favor of passing a baseline consumer privacy bill hasn't been this good in more than a decade.   With the support from supporters of the Take Back Your Privacy campaign, I believe that 2010 will see the first serious consideration of consumer privacy legislation in many years.



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