Big Reaction to White House Big Data Report

There was plenty of reaction Thursday to the White House's release of its report on the impact of "big data" (the massive amounts of info being collected, stored and shared electronically).

“I applaud the President for shining a light on these critical consumer privacy issues and the great opportunities for the appropriate, innovative uses of almost unfathomable volumes of data," said Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), "and I look forward to working with the administration to protect the most valuable possessions Americans have—their personal information and identities.”

Markey is cosponsor of a bill to protect children's online privacy, as well as on data breaches and brokers. 

Ed Black, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, wanted more focus on the NSA data collection that helped prompt the review and suggested the White House might be trying to offload the issue on commercial communications rather than address that issue.

“Although I welcome the government’s review of this important policy area, it would be a grave error if it is used to attempt to distract attention away from the need for major reform of government surveillance practices that nobody gets to opt out of," he said. "In the run up to the report, the administration continually intertwined the commercial privacy debate with the government surveillance debate. Frankly, channeling public outrage over NSA overreach into the debate around commercial privacy regulation is irresponsible. We would have hoped executive branch officials would be trying to regain some of the credibility and trust they have lost in the last year, and not resort to disingenuous efforts to distract and muddle the issues for the public. Politicizing the commercial privacy debate only makes it less likely that policymakers will create smart commercial privacy rules."

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) praised the reports treatment of law enforcement surveillance issues and for highlighting the risks of digital discrimination, but was not happy with what OTI said was a "failure to grapple" with NSA surveillance. It was the NSA surveillance issues that actually prompted the report in the first place.

"Although today’s report is a helpful addition to ongoing discussions about consumer privacy and digital discrimination, it’s worth asking the question: in a post-Snowden world, with government spying at the top of the agenda for policymakers, Internet companies and advocates both here and around the globe, was this really the best way for the White House’s top tech policy minds to be spending the last three months?" asked OTI policy director Kevin Bankston. "Or was this process ultimately a distraction that has needlessly taken focus away from the debate over how to rein in the National Security Agency’s massive surveillance programs?”

“DMA is pleased to hear the White House recognize the value that data has for consumers and the nation’s economy,” said Peggy Hudson, senior VP of government affairs for the Digital Marketing Association. “DMA and its members are leaders in ensuring that real benefits are derived from big data, and we will continue to advance America’s data-driven marketing economy.”

DMA praised the White House for supporting the need to reform the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

"The U.S. government's view of Big Data has been mired in 20th Century thinking, and must evolve to balance big data’s socially beneficial uses with recognition of today's privacy and security realities," Mozilla exec Alex Fowler said in a statement. "We're glad to see the report touch on this, though as we indicated in our comments to the White House, this is only the beginning of a longer discussion. In the meantime, we strongly urge the Obama administration to stay focused on surveillance reform to help restore trust on the Internet."

“For the last several years, the technology industry has worked hand-in-hand with this Administration to promote policies and research that maximizes the societal benefits of big data to empower citizens, improve healthcare, and reduce waste and fraud," said TechAmerica, whose members include HP and Qualcomm. "We appreciate the report’s focus on the overall benefits that the effective use of big data can achieve but are somewhat confused as to why the Administration has also focused on hypothetical concerns about the use of data. This creates uncertainty in the minds of Americans about a technology that has so much potential."

"That said, we are extremely pleased that the White House has chosen with this paper to back several reforms that the technology industry has been backing for years, namely creating a national data breach law and reforms to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act."

"Overall, the report is a reminder that the opportunities from data are vast and unprecedented and, contrary to some press reports, the impact of big data is not all 'doom and gloom,'" said Daniel Castro, director of the Center for Data Innovation. "The Administration should be commended for recognizing opportunities to advance data-driven innovation, but the report is a reminder that we have a long way to go before Washington gets over its fear of big data."

Castro agreed with TechAmerica's assessment of the overemphasis on the doom and gloom portion. He said the report "disproportionately focuses on fears that big data might harm consumers by violating their privacy, threatening their civil liberties, and hurting their pocketbooks."

The report raised concerns about digital discrimination. Wade Henderson, president of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, applauded that. "Today’s report highlights the crucial importance of updating our civil rights, data, and privacy policies to unlock big data’s benefits and guard against its risks. While big data is revolutionizing commerce and government for the better, it is also supercharging the potential for discrimination in employment, credit, insurance, and law enforcement."

Henderson said he thought the balance between risks and benefits was about right, and called the report a "welcome step forward."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.