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Proposed privacy watchdog gets mixed reviews

By Grant Gross
November 12, 2010 04:44 PM ET

IDG News Service - News reports suggesting U.S. President Barack Obama's administration is planning to appoint a new privacy watchdog and push for new privacy laws met with mixed reaction Friday, with some critics questioning whether new laws are needed.

The Wall Street Journal reported late Thursday that the U.S. Department of Commerce is preparing a report to outline its privacy policy goals, with a new position created to oversee privacy efforts.

While it's unclear what issues new regulations would address and what role a privacy watchdog would have, some observers cheered a new focus on privacy from the Obama administration.

"Better late than never," U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus, said in a statement. "Neither the government nor the industry are doing enough to protect people's privacy, but the Department of Commerce's decision to step up may shine some light on practices that seem to thrive in the dark. I am glad more and more folks -- in the government and otherwise -- are beginning to realize that there is a war against privacy."

But critics pointed to a couple of potential problems, including questions about whether new privacy regulations are needed and about potential conflicts with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, an independent agency that now holds U.S. companies to their privacy promises. FTC officials have been signaling a new privacy push in recent months.

Privacy groups and some tech companies have been pushing for stronger laws for years, but there's "an absence of any real data and very little analysis" of the costs of new regulations, said Thomas Lenard, president of the Technology Policy Institute, a free-market think tank.

New regulations, including an online do-not-track list being considered by the FTC, could hurt e-commerce and advertising, while delivering intangible benefits, Lenard said. So far, groups expressing concern with Web sites and ad networks tracking user behavior have shown few negative consequences, he said.

"After more than 10 years of talking about this, we're talking about hypothetical harms, rather than a lot of real harms," he added.

But new regulations could lead to fewer targeted ads, less effective ads and lower quality Web content, he said.

A new position in the Obama administration to coordinate privacy policy wouldn't necessarily be a bad idea, however, Lenard said. Privacy is an important policy issue that the administration should be focused on, he said. "Obviously, if it's a policy I disagree with, I might prefer that they have no policy," he added.

On the other side of the U.S. privacy policy spectrum, privacy advocate Jeffrey Chester questioned the Commerce Department's push to become the central agency in charge of privacy policy. That approach raises questions about a continued FTC role in enforcing privacy rules, he said.

Reprinted with permission from IDG.net. Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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