Google, Amazon, partners to Obama: Don’t solve a privacy problem that’s not there

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By Scott M. Fulton, III 

Any effort by the Obama Administration to support legislation that would tighten government compliance controls for major service providers, particularly around big data, could have the unwanted side-effect of stifling creativity and competition. That’s the message given last August 5 by the Internet Association, an industry association that describes itself as “the unified voice of the Internet economy,” whose members include Google, Yahoo, Amazon and AOL.

Having read a report issued last May by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) after a 90-day review, ordered by the President, of possible policy initiatives for the big data industry, the authors of an Internet Association open letter to the Commerce Dept.’s NTIA (.pdf) advise the Administration to conduct another study into what they call “the existing regime” before taking any regulatory action or supporting legislative action.

“At this time, any legislative proposal, to address ‘big data’ may result in a ‘precautionary principle problem’ that hinders the advancement of technologies and innovative services before they even develop,” reads the letter. “Given the breadth of existing protections for consumers, we encourage the Administration to carefully examine the existing regime to avoid negative, unintended consequences.”

The letter then criticizes the NTIA report itself, saying that “a majority of concerns raised by the report were largely speculative rather than actual harms. This calls into question whether there is a need to engage policymakers and industry on this issue rather than focusing attention and resources to areas where users experience real harms, such as data security.” It then called attention to the report’s singling out how certain analytics practices, such as profiling, could result in discrimination against citizens. Stating that discrimination is a different type of injustice from a privacy breach, the Association suggested that officials turn their attention to the former, and perhaps let privacy breaches become a real problem before applying premature remedies.

The Internet Association letter comes on the same day that Microsoft, under its own auspices, sent the NTIA a letter of its own (.pdf) urging the Administration to support “comprehensive federal privacy legislation.” Penned by the company’s deputy general counsel, David A. Heiner, the letter comes just days after a U.S. District Court judge in New York ordered Microsoft to comply with a Dept. of Justice warrant for emails believed to be stored on its servers in Dublin, Ireland–in violation of E.U. laws.

“Without new privacy legislation, U.S. companies will find themselves increasingly disadvantaged compared to foreign providers that will compete against U.S. companies in their home and other jurisdictions based on more protective privacy regimes,” writes Heiner. “Over time, absent sound rules of the road, it will likely become harder for U.S. companies to keep the trust of consumers worldwide… The adoption of a comprehensive U.S. privacy law may, conversely, encourage the flow of data to the United States, triggering increased physical data center infrastructure and generating more big data-focused jobs and growth here at home. A comprehensive U.S. regime may also act as a counterpoint to more restrictive third-country proposals, inspiring countries to adopt a less protectionist view of privacy and encouraging the free flow of data globally–to the benefit of businesses and their customers both in the United States and abroad.”

The need for comprehensive privacy law emerges, Heiner goes on to argue, from the Administration’s own Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights–a set of fundamental principles which Microsoft believes mandate the creation of laws to support them.

The White House announced late Friday that Nicole Wong, the U.S. Deputy CTO who co-authored the NIST report, will leave her post effective today.

For more:
– Consumer Privacy: Can the FTC Enforce a Voluntary Code of Conduct? [ReadWriteWeb, March 9, 2012]
– EU Commissioner: US Should Catch Up with Europe on Data Privacy [ReadWriteWeb, March 20, 2012]
– U.S. Deputy CTO Nicole Wong is leaving the White House [Washington Post]

Related Articles:
Obama should push Congress to beef up big data privacy protections, says report [FierceITSecurity]
Along came the Data Transparency Coalition to clear things up [FierceBigData]

Read more about: Microsoft

By Jarrett Neil Ridlinghafer
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