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On Personal Data, Innovation and Privacy…

March 11th, 2010 by Blair Levin - Executive Director, Omnibus Broadband Initiative

When I gave my first public speech about broadband planning process last July, I criticized the quality of analysis in the public comments we had received. Many comments were either uninformative or business-as-usual responses, and few offered concrete or creative ideas as to how to address the issues that caused Congress to ask for a plan.

As I reflect on the last six months, with the plan deadline less than a week away, I have to change my tune. The public record since July is voluminous, with nearly 25,000 filings. They included many documents that shaped our thinking and lead to core recommendations in the plan.  For example, Dr. Gerry Faulhaber, a professor at the Wharton School of Business, filed comments noting the importance of transparency for consumers in broadband speeds and service which provide the underpinning for our recommendations on that topic.

There are other filings I could note but perhaps the most interesting set of filings—or at least the most unexpected from my point of view—were those focused on the importance of personal data in regards to innovation and privacy.  The role of personal data in the online world is not a “new” idea, but its importance to broadband became increasingly apparent through public comments and events beyond the Commission. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a series of roundtables, the last of which concludes March 17, focused on the balance between innovative use of personal data and privacy. Congress has spearheaded similar efforts at legislation, led by Rep. Boucher, with several pieces of legislation in the works. Just last week The Economist ran a front page article on the accumulation of information and data online, while over the last twelve months major online companies such as Google and Facebook have focused on enhancing privacy initiatives for consumers.

Many of the most innovative applications on the Internet are based on consumers sharing personal data. The data that businesses collect have allowed them to provide increasingly valuable services to end-users, as they are a source of significant value. Web searching, location-based services and many of the “apps” that consumers use on their smartphones make use of personal data in return for services and goods, which are often free. Targeted advertising uses better data to deliver more focused and relevant information to consumers, who in turn are up to six times as likely to click or act on the proffered offer.

There is a great potential for innovation but it is critical to get the privacy issue right.  At a basic level, privacy online and offline are similar – consumers want a right to the privacy of their data and the proper use of their information if voluntarily shared. They expect that companies and organizations will collect, analyze, share and safeguard their data properly. However, the online world brings additional complexity. For one, data are collected in manners that consumers often fail to understand. Browsing, searching and interacting online can result in the surreptitious collection of data -- for instance with the “cookies” that remember a user (and her information) -- in ways that are not fully transparent or known to consumers. The information being shared and the terms of its use are complex, and while better disclosure standards that are easy to read and simple to understand can help, additional actions are needed. 20th century notions of privacy protection break down once information is put into digital format. Unlike the offline world of paper and photocopiers, sharing of digital information is as easy as a click.

In addition, digital personal data are not just limited to traditional commercial information – health records, energy consumption, educational figures and governmental data are all critical pieces of an individual’s digital profile. As more applications utilize the Internet and more devices connect to the Internet, this information is exploding. Safeguarding this information and giving consumers control and choice are critical outcomes to ensure that any personal information shared benefits consumers and drives innovation.

The plan itself contains several recommendations for personal data in regards to innovation and privacy. It encourages Congress, the FTC and the FCC to work together to clarify the relationship between users and their online personal data profiles. It highlights the potential for Congress to help spur the development of private-sector companies that could aid consumers in better managing their own personal data. In addition, we think one of the most important agenda items for the country is to consider how the Privacy Act should be reformed. While the Act has done a tremendous job for consumer welfare since its enactment in 1974, the 21st century realities of personal data require an update.

These recommendations, taken together, can assure that consumers have control over their personal data and confidence in the security of that data, helping to increase innovation and promote a robust and healthy broadband ecosystem.

5 Responses to “On Personal Data, Innovation and Privacy…”

  1. MikeSoja says:

    Why are the FCC servers/website so slooooooooooooow? In some cases, pages fail to appear at all, unless one tries multiple times. Just typical for government work?

    It seems to me, the more the FCC injects itself into trying to "fix" the Internet, the better the chance the behind-by-a-generation computer system at the FAA will look like State of the Art!

  2. Guest says:

    What I do is enter an address nearby. If they are seeking generalized speed data for an area this should be sufficient. If there is some other reason to need the exact address.........well I am not interested in that. In fact I use this same method when any site which I do not expect or desire to contact me back asks for this personal information. Thats just my program and I don't care what the He@@ the powers that be think of it.

    JMHO

  3. Guest says:

    what the H*LL is a "broadband ecosystem". This is doublespeak.

  4. Winfred Heller says:

    I have been following this issue for many years now. One of the things that strikes me is as mentioned, the use of data collection. Data collection can mean many things to many people. From remembering what settings you had visiting a "good" web site, to "nefarious" web sites that take your data or infect your PC. For real, advertising, or especially the use of banking, even credit card use, agreements have been noted by myself of companies, that in order to use their services and whatnot, to have someone agree that they give up the right to their data into perpetuity. That cannot be allowed in my opinion. It strikes me as data theft as in: "If you want to deal with us, you give up your rights that the Constitution guarantees". However, since it is an agreement; a contract, not much can be done if someone agrees.
    Education of Internet use is definitely needed for all, which I try to do with customers I deal with. What to do, and what not to do, and the consequences involved. What many people assume now from the old days years ago, is that someone is protecting them from unauthorized use. The lay people do not understand it, you have to spell it out as most feel, especially younger people, that the State is there to do this for them. Not necessarily true. People need to educate themselves of the pitfalls, as well as the pluses, of using the Internet. When there is say, a pop up from some so called advertising, or plugin needed, it falls to the user, not the government, or someone else, to decide what to do. These types of things commonly involve spyware, viruses, etc.
    As a computer tech, most of the work I do is involved in removing the spyware and viruses from their PCs after they "click" on something. Unfortunately, this costs money and time to not only the consumer, but the businesses involved. If some business decides that they wish to, or not to do things of this nature, then they take the future of that business in their own hands, and they may fail or prosper. The same goes for consumers.
    In closing, not much has changed over the years, it's just the people are using a different medium. Unless attitudes and morals change, how can we say we are more advanced than anyone, or anything else? As far as Internet for all, a system of towers and landlines across the country (countries even if you want to talk the world) integrated and yet with an educated public, government, and business environment is sorely needed. Security monitoring is definitely needed considering today's climate, without interfering with protections we have, or eroding the ones we haven't lost yet already due to today's climate. Thanks for listening, and if any of this makes sense, the better.

  5. Guest says:

    I navigated to your page when I heard about the broadband test you were hosting. In my opinion, you need to rethink your approach somewhat. Upon being confronted with a request for my address, my immediate reaction was "None of your damn business", which is what I entered in the first line. However, on further thought, I realize that it may be your intent to gather performance data across the country, which I think is a valid effort.

    So I have several suggestions:

    1. Explain the intent of the request
    2. Give the citizen a right to opt out of providing address information and proceed with the test anyway.

    You speak about learning of citizen's concerns. "There are other filings I could note but perhaps the most interesting set of filings—or at least the most unexpected from my point of view—were those focused on the importance of personal data in regards to innovation and privacy. " Apparently, you chose not to internalize that lesson. You may be surprised how many will enter their personal information when it may result in a constructive outcome, but won't provide it just because it was demanded.

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