Senate Hearing on the State of Online Consumer Privacy

On March 16, 2011, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, & Transportation held a hearing on The State of Online Consumer Privacy. As part of an effort to protect consumer privacy, the purpose of the hearing was to look at “commercial practices that involve collecting, maintaining, using, and disseminating large amounts of consumer information.”

Online consumer privacy is a hot topic right now. In a recent survey by Opera Software, when asked “What worries you the most in your daily life?,” 25% of people in the U.S. said having their online privacy being violated (for example, being a victim of Internet fraud) worried them most, compared with 27% saying being hurt in a traffic accident, 23% saying becoming bankrupt, 22% saying fear of losing their job, and 17% saying relationship problems.

There have been many articles written recently about significant changes in consumer privacy policies by Facebook, Google, and other Internet service providers. There is an interesting infographic that shows how significantly Facebook’s default privacy settings have changed over the years. On the other hand, there can be consumer benefits to sharing more information with companies, such as getting personalized product recommendations from based on your past purchases or even location–awareness applications for mobile phones that deliver coupons or deal alerts to you when you walk into a particular store.

Government agencies have been looking into consumer privacy issues recently. The Federal Trade Commission released a preliminary FTC staff report titled Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: A Proposed Framework for Businesses and Policymakers in December 2010. The Department of Commerce’s Internet Policy Task Force also released a report in December 2010 titled Commercial Data Privacy and Innovation in the Internet Economy: A Dynamic Policy Framework. Both the Chairman of the FTC and the Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information at the Department of Commerce testified at the March 16 Senate hearing.

There is an overview of the March 16 Senate hearing in this Computerworld article by Jaikumar Vijayan. For more details about what the FTC, Department of Commerce, ACLU, and others discussed at the hearings, you can watch an archived Webcast or read the testimony of each participant.

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