Facebook and Google Submit Comments on Privacy Bill

Facebook and Google – both of which have endured increased scrutiny about data privacy – have submitted comments on a federal privacy legislation draft introduced in early May. Other groups, including the Interactive Advertising Bureau and several consumer advocacy organizations, also submitted comments. However, while some information has been made available, the overall lack of transparency about who submitted comments and what they said could lead observers to conclude that interested parties are not pleased with the draft.

“We recognize that the discussion draft is designed to control the collection, use and disclosure of information, but we recommend that this be distinguished from information that individuals intend to share with others,” Andrew Noyes, Facebook’s manager, public policy communications, told ClickZ News. While he said the company did submit comments regarding the discussion draft, Facebook did not provide them to ClickZ.

The much-anticipated federal privacy legislation draft is sponsored by Congressman Rick Boucher, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, and Cliff Stearns, ranking member of the Subcommittee. Comments on the draft were due June 4. Chairman Boucher’s office did not respond to multiple requests from ClickZ made this week for information on which organizations submitted comments on the draft, nor for copies of comments.

Google also submitted official comments on the draft, according to a company spokesperson. “Google supports comprehensive, baseline privacy rules that help build trust and protect our users. There is much to build on in this draft and we’ve offered several constructive comments directly to the Chairman,” noted the spokesperson. “We look forward to working closely with Chairman Boucher, Mr. Stearns and other members of Congress moving forward.”

Both Facebook and Google said they support the mission of protecting consumer privacy “Facebook commends the staff of the Subcommittee for its work on the important subject of online privacy. We are supportive of this process and share the Subcommittee’s goal of empowering consumers with control over their online information,” Noyes said.

The comments the companies were willing to reveal to ClickZ suggest both believe the draft needs work. It does not, for example, differentiate between data collected through tracking of Web interactions, and data posted online directly by users, such as the information they share on their Facebook pages. Facebook would like the legislation to allow for collection, sharing, and use of data provided voluntarily by users. Even after altering its privacy settings late last month in the hopes of assuaging consumer privacy concerns, the company has been subjected to intense criticism about its approach to privacy protection.

The discussion draft deals mainly with the use of data that has been collected by websites and third party systems, such as information gathered and employed for online ad targeting purposes. Yet despite rising public concern about the use of information people willingly post to social media channels, the bill does not specifically mention voluntarily-shared data.

Also, since the release of the discussion draft, Google has come under fire for gathering data such as e-mail contents from wireless networks in conjunction with its location-based services, and is facing investigations and lawsuits in the U.S. and abroad as a result.

The IAB, along with several consumer privacy advocates, made their full comments on the bill available to media outlets. And while those parties indicated support for the general goal of protecting consumer privacy, none was satisfied with the draft in its current form. The IAB – among the most critical of the bill – stressed the benefits of industry self-regulation. It also suggested that the draft unfairly singles out the use of consumer data for advertising purposes.

In addition, the IAB opposed opt-in requirements for data transfers to third parties, and said that requiring first parties such as websites to allow users to opt-out of data use could prevent them from enabling basic Web functions such as site personalization.

Many consumer privacy groups were vocal critics of the draft from the start. Organizations including Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and World Privacy Forum submitted a joint letter to the Boucher and Stearns, stating that “the notice and choice model on which the bill is based promotes bureaucracy but does not promote privacy.” The groups also called an exception for individual managed profiles “unwarranted.” Self-regulatory measures such as a system offered by Google allow users to manage and modify profiles that includes information on their interests that is used for ad targeting.

Consumers Union also submitted comments stating the group is “extremely concerned” that the bill creates loopholes for entities that purge data after 18 months or provide notice of data collection and usage through icons featured on websites – both accepted self-regulatory approaches to online privacy.

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