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Editorial: Action That’sRefreshing

One way to gauge whether the government has actually struck a reasonable balance between regulation and marketplace is by how much each side does or doesn’t complain.

By that measure, the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission got it about right in recent actions on cybersecurity and online privacy—related issues that influence all of us, virtually everywhere we go, and increasingly affect everything we do. Industry gave the actions some major props, countered by perhaps a grumble or two from public activist groups.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, with help from a cybersecurity advisory committee, concluded a couple of weeks ago that adhering to voluntary codes of conduct is the best way to address the online threats of botnets, malware and domain-name hijacking. Major cable operators Comcast, Cox and Time Warner Cable have agreed to sign on to that effort, and the general industry consensus is that a public-private partnership approach will serve both sides well.

In the privacy space, the Federal Trade Commission last week recommended that ISPs, advertisers and others give Web users —that being most of us (and soon virtually all of us, if the FCC and Obama administration have their way)—more control over the collection of our information, an easier path to exercising that control, and a clearer picture of how and why the information is being gathered.

After all, the point is not to prevent the sharing of information. That sharing is what fuels wonders like Facebook and location-based apps, along with ads for something we need or want that put the item a click and a credit card away, which is what pays for all that free Web content, including ad-supported video. Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz has consistently professed to understand that online tracking is not an inherent evil, that targeted advertising is what helps pay for the Web, and that self-regulation is not only preferable but seems to be working, though not as well as he would like.

The FTC report backed that up last week. It further recommended that Congress pass general privacy legislation, and Congress is in fact working on that, with or without the recommendation. It did not, however, call for a ‘do not track’ bill, which could put a crimp in the targeted advertising that helps support an increasingly online media business. In fact, Leibowitz told B&C he was “very, very” confident that ‘do not track’ could be achieved without legislation. He also said no rulemakings were planned that would enshrine the report’s recommendations.

The online advertising industry has already committed to a browser-based ‘do not track’ system, in addition to its icons on Websites, so the FTC has already seen a commitment from industry that will now need to produce results.

In this divided town, even what would seem at 30,000 feet to be obviously bipartisan issues—like protecting privacy, combating piracy, tracking down online criminals and scammers, or reforming the FCC—often fall apart at ground level when Republicans and Democrats, or industry and government, face the prospect of having to actually agree, and act. It is refreshing when something can actually get done.