President Obama Proposes Federal Guidelines for Online Privacy

President Obama seems to be making the Internet one of his priorities for 2015, as he’s already announced plans to make it easier for communities to build faster networks. Now it appears he doesn’t just want our Internet to be faster, but also more private. Currently, the U.S. is behind other nations in this regard: Japan has a “right to be forgotten law,” as does the European Union. Obama expressed desire for a new bill that will restrict the way online companies manage your data, and make it easier for the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to punish companies that don’t comply. And if we’re to believe groundhog meteorologists, we might see this bill before the end of winter. Creating a Federal Standard for Privacy Analysts expect the bill will require companies to provide more disclosure about how user data is handled, also requiring users to agree to these parameters via opt-in. It will also require companies to notify users of any changes in what they do with that data, and users must again authorize this change. No longer will online companies be able to collect your user data for one purpose before selling it to advertisers without your consent. The president wants to grant the FTC the authority to fine violators of that policy as much as $16,500 per violation, per day. To a large company, that single fine isn’t much money at all. But rarely do companies collecting user data deal with a single user’s data at a time. Instead, they treat huge amounts of user data the same way, and so per-user fines that span weeks or months could definitely cripple offenders. Who Are We Talking About? Your data isn’t alone: it’s stored along with thousands or even millions of users’ data. It’s the volume of that data that makes it valuable to advertisers, hackers, and others. Threats to the privacy of your information can come from companies knowingly selling that information to third parties, and from lax data security practices. Even if the people you give your information to have great security practices, the people they sell it to may not. You can’t know. Right now, it’s probable that there are a lot of online entities with access to your user data. Social media sites, search engines, retailers, banks, insurance providers, software designers, charities, advertisers and more, all probably have some level of access to your data. There’s currently no federal law to govern what these companies do with that data. Your only clue is usually in those user agreements you never read when signing up for a new service. The reason so many online services are free is because you’re essentially trading your personal information for that unpaid access. And for the most part, if the service is free, that service isn’t the actual product. It’s only the lure—you’re the product and the consumers are advertisers. They’re buying your preferences to create more effective advertising. People Can Actually Agree on This Issue Online privacy is one issue both parties might actually support. Republican Congressman Luke Messer and Democratic Congressman Jared Polis are currently working together to draft a student-specific online privacy bill. Bipartisan support for a new bill is important because, while the president and his administration can write a draft for a new bill, members of the Republican-controlled House of Representatives must sponsor and introduce that draft into the legislative process. So, without friends in the house to introduce and then pass that draft, no White House bill is going anywhere. Watch Out for Yourself None of us want to see our information spread without our consent. That means that until any federal online privacy bill becomes law, we all need to read those long, legalese user-agreements before clicking “I agree.” And if you don’t like what you read, don’t make that click. Photo Credit: Barak Obama/Flikr

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Will Smith is a copywriter living in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His favorite word is “petrichor,” and aside from wordplay, he loves reading history, watching Dodger baseball, and racing with the Sports Car Club of America.

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