Gov't considers electronic privacy legislation

The issue of legislative regulation of the massive and potentially intrusive personal data collected online by advertising companies -- as a means to more targeted ad placement, nominally -- is finally reaching Congress. "As government representatives think about legislation," writes the New York Times, "they are also trying to gauge how aware and concerned consumers are about online privacy."

The following is excerpted from "Web Privacy on the Radar in Congress." [Editing and emphasis mine.]

Is privacy a concern for younger consumers, who are splashing personal details all over MySpace? The sparse data available suggest that it is. A study last year of 2,274 British adults showed that people ages 18 to 24 considered privacy tied with "avoiding hate and offense" as the most important consideration in digital technologies. For older people, privacy was second to "avoiding hate and offense." The study was conducted by YouGov, a British research firm.

"People my age — in their 20s or in their 30s — a lot of them are very clued up on protecting privacy on the Internet," said Ben Saxon, 23, a student in Cambridge, England. Still, he said, "I don't think complete privacy on the Internet is actually possible anymore."

Those same questions of data collection and privacy policies are attracting the attention of Congress, too. And even some in the government admit that they do not have a clear grasp of what companies are able to do with the wealth of data now available to them.

"I'm pretty aware of the fact that anything you do on the Internet pretty much should just be considered public," [Illinois Senate aide Kiyoshi] Martinez said. While he knows that companies are collecting his data and often tracking his online habits so they can show him more relevant ads, he said, he would like to see more transparency "about what the company intends to do with your data and your information."

"Some type of omnibus electronic privacy legislation is needed," said Representative Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, "regardless of the particular technologies or companies involved."

As advertisers become more sophisticated about behavioral targeting, and online privacy standards become increasingly varied, regulators and privacy advocates are becoming concerned. Beyond the data question, there are issues of how companies should tell browsers that their information is being tracked, which area of law covers this and what — if anything — proper regulation would look like.

There are two ways to establish the boundaries of privacy in this new era of massive data integration: by changing our community standards in a grassroots way, or through legislation and the courts. It's good to see that the youth of Britain are strongly interested in privacy rights (and with all of the surveillance cameras in London, I'm not surprised to hear that), but apart from a general unease and paranoia, I don't think as an issue it's very much on people's minds here in the US, even during this highly charged election year when people are as keyed up as they get on what matters most to them.

The League of Technical Voter's position on the issue is that privacy is now a matter of rights, not secrecy -- it's why the organization's top project is making the government more transparent. If we can't hide our information from companies and government, we should get a say in how that data is used, and who has access to it, and how it can be traded, bought, and sold. Aren't we allowed some say in the manner?

Most people probably don't know they have an inherent ownership of their own image, likeness and voice, that they are allowed to withhold from someone wanting to reproduce any of them. Does the same apply to our shopping and browsing habits, our health data, our credit card payment history?

We may need legislation to establish these boundaries, so it's good that there are people in government concerned about this issue and already looking into it. However, when the time comes, companies and their lobbyists are going to have a very different view. But public opinion does have sway as well, so it's time for this to become an issue on the forefront of people's minds.