FTC Commissioner Harbour: “We have entered a digital arms race, and the current outlook is troubling.”

Federal Trade Commissioner Pamela Jones Harbour has always been a thorn in the side of the online ad industry. Harbour, whose term was supposed to expire this September, was the lone dissenter in the FTC’s approval of Google’s acquisition of DoubleClick, and has since recommended privacy legislation, and lamented Google’s recent purchase of AdMob.

Today, speaking at the FTC’s privacy roundtable in Washington, D.C., she stressed the need for more decisive government action on consumer data privacy. I obtained the text of her speech from the FTC. Here are a few excerpts ClickZ readers will be interested in (links are mine):

“I believe action has not been a high enough priority to date. I certainly do not intend to criticize Representative Boucher’s efforts to craft legislative guidance on behavioral advertising. But as I have previously stated, the United States needs comprehensive privacy legislation. If we continue the piecemeal approach to privacy in this country, we merely push aside the underlying issues.

“…Industry attempts to provide notice and choice to consumers have been insufficient thus far. I hope we would all agree that disclosures about information collection, use, and control are not meaningful if they are buried deep within opaque privacy policies. Even if we can decipher the cryptic disclosures, they provide consumers with no meaningful access or choice, which renders those concepts largely illusory. We have strayed far from the Fair Information Practices that should serve as a baseline for any comprehensive privacy legislation.

“…Even where consumers have the ability to opt-out, the effects are limited. If consumer data are unavailable from one source, often they can be obtained from another. Flash cookies and other technology largely circumvent cookie controls. We may soon long for the day when all we worried about were cookies. For every company crafting a response that addresses notice, choice, or transparency, there are several more firms trying to parse and evade the intent of Commission guidance. We have entered a digital arms race, and the current outlook is troubling.

“…I know the Commission will continue to be the thought leader on privacy. I will certainly do my part to push the Commission, as I have done for six years now, by challenging mainstream opinions and asking tough questions.”

In his opening remarks today, however, Chairman Jon Leibowitz was far less forceful, although he admitted the agency’s notice and choice approach hasn’t gone as well as hoped:

“People have asked me what we expect to get from this roundtable, and where we’re headed. I can honestly say: we don’t know. Our minds are open. We do feel that the approaches we’ve tried so far – both the notice and choice regime, and later the harm-based approach – haven’t worked quite as well as we would like. But it could be that this issue is a lot like Churchill’s view of democracy: ‘it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’ “

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