03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Power of All

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
, 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.