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Public Comments On Privacy

Big-time media critic Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has been named to head a new privacy subcommittee in the Senate with oversight of behavioral advertising, online privacy, social networks and more. Meanwhile, two new privacy bills have been introduced, more are on their way, and the Federal Trade Commission and Commerce Department are preparing plans of attack for securing online privacy.

With the issue heating up, B&C talked to three other key figures in the privacy debate to get their takes.

Lawrence Strickling, head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, Commerce’s lead agency on privacy.

Q. Commerce has been pushing selfregulation on privacy. How long does the industry have?

Strickling: That is still to be determined, but I would push back on the idea that it is totally a self-regulatory mechanism.

We do recommend that as an important component, but there are really three aspects that need to be taken together. The first is having the baseline, a certain level everyone must satisfy. Second is giving the industry the opportunity to prepare these codes of conduct to maintain the flexibility. But the third piece is the enforceability of those codes of conduct. You have to take the three together rather than just say this is a self-enforcement recommendation.

Jon Leibowitz, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission

Q. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is a big fan of regulatory restraint. How about you?

Leibowitz: Yes. We are a bipartisan agency, and privacy is one of the most bipartisan issues. Industry, when it wants to, can move with real speed, and sometimes faster and more effectively than government.

There is a complex interplay between getting companies to move in the right direction to protect consumers and having the government, including Congress and agencies like ours, use the bully pulpit or the legislative stick that Congress has to push for clear rules.

We really do believe in selfregulation. We have seen some promising signs that industry is moving to protect the privacy of American consumers, including stepping forward on options to allow consumers to have the choice not to be tracked. But time will tell whether this is a consistent moving forward, or simply a brief and not sufficiently consequential response.

Joe Turow, communications professor, Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.

Q. Advertisers and media companies are concerned about potentially losing billions of dollars in online targeted advertising that could be threatened by privacy regulations. But is there a risk to them over not doing enough to protect privacy?

Turow: The risks are at least twofold. Companies that overstep certain boundaries—and those are continually shifting—are going to find Congresspeople screaming at them and starting to whip up public concern and presumably pushing toward legislation. That is the dominant issue. And as people begin to realize that their information is being abused, individual protests may happen, and larger group protests may happen and hurt marketers in general.

I think that proper minimal regulation together with transparency and self-regulation are really ways marketers can help themselves.

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