Consumer Advocates Urge Obama to Strengthen Privacy Bill of Rights

The Telecommunications Law Resource Center is the most comprehensive reference and news platform for communications law, covering broadcasting, cable, broadband, telephony and wireless;...

By Alexei Alexis

March 3 — Public interest groups are urging President Barack Obama to work with them to strengthen a draft consumer privacy bill that was recently unveiled by his administration.

In a March 3 letter to the president, the groups said the proposed bill would give companies broad leeway to determine privacy protections for consumers, among other concerns.

“Our substantive concerns were compounded by the way in which this bill was developed,” the groups said. “Most of our organizations were left out of consultations and were allowed to review the draft only one week prior to its release. Many organizations outside the Beltway were not able to review the legislation at all.”

The legislation should uphold state privacy laws and afford stronger regulatory and enforcement authority to the Federal Trade Commission, according to the letter, which was signed by 14 organizations, including the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Consumer Watchdog, Electronic Frontier Foundation, National Consumers League and Public Knowledge.

Obama's proposal, dubbed the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights Act, would codify and allow the FTC to enforce a set of general privacy protections for U.S. consumers, but the plan is considered by public interest groups to be weak and full of loopholes.

Bill a ‘Discussion-Starter.'

The proposed bill is intended to be the start of a discussion with members of Congress, consumers, industry and other stakeholders with the ultimate goal of signing legislation into law that will increase U.S. consumer privacy protections, according to the White House.

“The draft seeks to provide consumers with more control over their data, companies with clearer ways to signal their responsible stewardship over data and strengthen relationships with customers, and everyone the flexibility to continue innovating in the digital age,” the White House said in an e-mailed statement. “It applies common-sense protections to personal data collected online or offline regardless of how data is shared and promotes responsible practices that can maximize the benefits of data analysis while taking important steps to minimize risks, including the risk of discrimination.”

In addition to public interest groups, the proposal has been criticized by FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection Director Jessica Rich and key congressional Democrats, including Rep. Frank Pallone (N.J.), ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Panel Focused on Cybersecurity 

The committee's top Republican, Rep. Fred Upton (Mich.), has said that Congress must tread carefully on the issue of consumer privacy because of potential risks to innovation. However, the congressman is in favor of congressional action on legislation focused on national data security breach notification to U.S. consumers. Rep. Michael Burgess (R-Texas), who heads the panel's Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee, has discussed plans for such legislation.

In a related development, the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee March 3 kicked off a series of hearings focused on cybersecurity threats and implications for the U.S. economy.

“These are big, important issues, so it is imperative that we establish a clear understanding of the issues we face,” Subcommittee Chairman Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) said in a statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Alexei Alexis in Washington at aalexis @bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

The letter to the White House is online at: http://op.bna.com/der.nsf/r?Open=sbay-9u9qys.