Commerce Department scrutinizes Internet privacy

Effort not related to Google getting slammed by 10 countries for perceived privacy lapses, source says

The U.S. Commerce Department Wednesday kicked off an initiative to take a close look at how the privacy of individuals is impacted broadly in the Internet economy with the goal of providing advice to the White House on how both the president and government policymakers might regard the topic.

“Because of the vital role the Internet plays in driving innovation throughout the economy, the Department has made it a top priority to ensure that the Internet remains open for innovation while promoting an environment respectful of individual privacy expectations,” said Commerce Secretary Gary Locke .

The U.S. government plan comes one day after ten countries took Google to task for perceived failings in protecting personal information of those who use its Internet-based services, but the Commerce Dept. isn’t saying there’s any connection to that. According to one Commerce source, the idea for a broad-based privacy-policy review related to the Internet has been mulled for a few months.

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The source at the Commerce Dept.’s National Telecommunications and Information (NTIA) agency, who spoke on background, says the goal is to take a close look at a broad swath of the Internet economy to understand the impact on the privacy of individuals that make use of online services of all kinds.

Many innovations in technology that have sprung up over the last decade or so have made use of personal information in ways not seen before, but “users need to feel trust and confidence,” said the NTIA source.

While there’s been a ‘light touch” applied to privacy issues in the past, the Commerce Dept. now is intent on getting a clearer picture of what is happening “in the nexus of privacy and innovation on the Internet,” the NTIA source points out. Policymakers and the president as well consider this an important topic and the goal is to provide the White House with advice, including possibly policy direction for the future.

In order to foster a dialog with industry and the broader public, the Commerce Dept. will hold a public meeting on May 7th to discuss privacy policy in the United States. It will be held in the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C.

In addition, the Commerce Dept. Is seeking public comment from the commercial sector, the academic world, all other organizations with interest in the issue, as well as individual citizens with views on the current privacy laws in the U.S. and around the world as they apply and influence the information economy.

The Commerce Department indicated it “seeks to understand whether current privacy laws serve consumer interests and fundamental democratic values.”

The topic of privacy of personal information and online services has always elicited strong views, especially from those who believe too much personal information is stored or manipulated for commercial gain, or that companies go just a little too far.

This week Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman and CEO, was scolded by no less than 10 government officials from countries that include Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Israel, Spain, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, who sent a public letter to him expressing deep concern that Google isn’t adequately protecting personal privacy.

“Google is an innovative company that has changed how people around the world use the Internet,” the letter from these ten government representatives says. It goes on to state, “however, we are increasingly concerned that, too often, the privacy rights of the world’s citizens are being forgotten as Google rolls out new technological applications.”

The letter, dated April 19, argues that the new Google Buzz social-networking application failed on the privacy front because it “automatically assigned users a network of ‘followers’ from among people with whom they corresponded most often on Gmail, without adequately informing Gmail users about how this new service would work or providing sufficient information to permit informed consent decisions.”

“This violated the fundamental principle that individuals should be able to control the use of their personal information,” the letter goes on to say, adding that Google has apologized and “moved quickly to stem the damage.”

But the letter continued to take Google to task, insisting “Google Buzz is not an isolated case,” claiming that “Google Street View was launched in some countries without due consideration of privacy and data protection laws and cultural norms.”

Finally, the letter asks Google to collect and process “only the minimum amount of personal information necessary to achieve the identified purpose of the product or service,” and take other steps, like creating “privacy-protective default settings.”

The NTIA source wouldn’t draw any connection to the ten-country letter this week and the Commerce dept.’s new effort on privacy policy, but said one goal is to be able to issue a report by early fall on privacy issues and the Internet and provide policy advice to the White House.

The Commerce Dept. has formed what it calls the Internet Policy Task Force to explore “current policy frameworks, and ways to address the challenges of the new internet economy and society in a manner that preserves and enhances personal privacy protection.”

The Internet Policy Task Force is comprised of staff members from NTIA, the International Trade Administration, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Patent & Trademark Office, which will be coordinated through the Commerce Dept.’s Office of Policy and Strategic Planning, which reports to the Secretary. Another government agency, the Federal Trade Commission, also is known to play a role in tackling privacy issues, but is not involved on the new task force at this point.

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