Friday, June 1, 2012

In an era where partisan bickering in Washington has created dysfunctional and ineffective gridlock, the Federal Trade Commission may be an island of bi-partisan accomplishment.

At least, that’s how FTC Chair Jon Leibowitz sees it.

In a wide-ranging discussion with All Thing D’s Walt Mossberg at the 10th annual D tech and business conference, Leibowitz described the FTC as “about as bipartisan as you can get.”

The FTC’s privacy cases against Google and Facebook have, Leibowitz contended, protected “the privacy of more than a billion people around the world.”

That’s pretty impressive for an organization that does not have the power to jail anyone. Its powers are
limited to imposing fines and working with companies on ameliorative measures.

In the case of Facebook, the FTC’s oversight means that if at any time during the next 20 years Facebook
changes its privacy policy, it has to offer users the right to opt in. In other words, Facebook can no longer change first and tell you later. You choose to enable the new settings.

The other big change is that now, if you leave the social network, you can take your information with you.

The FTC created a similar settlement agreement with Google. Leibowitz acknowledged that the FTC is still investigating Google for anticompetitive practices, but wouldn’t say more than that they are trying to figure out if the evidence is there to pursue such a case.

Leibowitz was insistent that consumers, not web sites, own their information. He is not, though, anti-Google or Facebook and told the D10 audience that the services bring “tremendous value” to consumers. However, that admiration does not mean the FTC will pull back on trying to protect consumers’ online rights. Leibowitz outlined three areas of focus:

Privacy by Design:
According to Leibowitz, developers should envision privacy settings and controls as they are building their services and not have to add or radically improve them after the fact.

Leibowitz described a mobile privacy policy that required 102 clicks to get through (he joked that you might not want to do it while driving). Privacy information, Leibowitz said, should be as simple and straight forward as “the nutrition guide on the side of a cereal box.”

For the FTC, this means the option to choose whether or not you want to be tracked. Thus far, all major Web browsers have introduced do not track settings, but Web site purveyors need to get on board, as well.
“If we knew 15 years ago what we know now, maybe more of the Internet would have been opt in now,” lamented the FTC Chair.

Leibowitz, however, is confident that Web sites will be engaged in self-regulation of third-party cookies by the end of the year. Leibowitz calls a Do Not Track for third party cookies “a pretty modest proposal” for these companies and one that most of them support.

There is the question, however, if these changes will satisfy consumers who, Leibowitz told us, have only “a vague, inchoate understanding of what Websites are doing with their information.”

Even so, he does think everyone understands that the services, information and entertainment Web sites deliver is funded by advertising and “no one wants to undermine them,” he added.

The FTC is also looking at other parts of our online experience. Leibowitz said they’re seeking to update COPA (the Child Online Protection Act) for the first time in years. Proposed changed include:
1. An opt-in from parents before web sites can track kids’ online activities
2. Parental permission for geolocation of children under 12.
There’s no timeline for implementing these changes, though. The FTC is still collecting public comments; Leibowitz said they have about 100 really good ones.

Leibowitz also responded to concerns about the ages of children on Facebook and acknowledged that there are likely many who are 11 or 12 years old (the official sign-up age is 13). It’s a complicated issue, said Leibowitz, since underage children have often spoken to their parents before creating the account.