Hot on the heels of the FTC’s recent appointment of a new Chief Technologist and the EU’s announcement that it plans to overhaul its data protection rules in 2011, it now looks like the Obama Administration soon will be throwing its hat into the Internet privacy ring. According to press reports, the Administration is preparing a stepped-up approach to policing Internet privacy which will call for new laws and the creation of a new oversight position.
The reports suggest that the strategy likely will be unveiled in a report to be issued by the US Commerce Department in the next few weeks. The White House also recently created a special task force to transform the Commerce Department’s recommendations into policy. The White House task force, set up three weeks ago, is led by Cameron Kerry, brother of Sen. John Kerry (D. Mass.) and Commerce Department General Counsel, and Christopher Schroeder, Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice. Both initiatives signal a heightened interest in online privacy by the Obama administration.
Currently, there is no comprehensive US law that protects consumer privacy online. The only agency tasked with policing Internet privacy issues is the FTC, which is limited to taking action only in those instances when a privacy-violating action is deemed deceptive or unfair under Section 5 of the FTC Act. In addition, the Commission is limited both in its ability to impose penalties in individual cases and to engage in rulemaking. In a year in which the news has been filled with stories about Internet privacy violations and increased concern about the potential misuse of personal data, it appears that some in government believe that a more aggressive approach to Internet privacy regulation may be necessary.
The Administration may well face a tough road in implementing new privacy initiatives. Opponents of increased oversight argue that industry self-regulation is the best way to address privacy concerns and that governmental regulations may stifle innovation of new Web-based technologies. On the other hand, proponents of increased regulation believe that the self-policing of the Web has failed to protect the privacy of Internet users.
It remains to be seen how future online privacy initiatives will be impacted by the recent Republican takeover of the House. Any new privacy initiatives will require an expansion of the government’s role over this area in the context of the Republicans' recent campaigning for a curtailment of “big” government. That said, online privacy protection may be an issue where the left and the right do not necessarily line up in the usual ways. One example of this came from Joe Barton (R., Texas), co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, who commented that the Administration’s initiative is “[b]etter late than never. I am glad more and more folks, in the government and otherwise, are beginning to realize that there is a war against privacy.” As Rep. Barton’s comment suggests, it just may be that the Republicans will be carrying the banner for increased government oversight and more regulation -- at least when it comes to online privacy.