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White House privacy plan takes a cue from Occupy Wall Street

Consumer Reports News: February 23, 2012 04:08 PM

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Buried in the 50-page online privacy plan—the "Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights"—I received at the White house event today, I found an intriguing proposal for government, industry, and consumer groups to develop and implement privacy practices using a decision-making process that's much like the consensus process famously used by members of Occupy Wall Street.

Specifically, the White House says the Commerce Department (and perhaps other Federal agencies) will convene, in the coming months, what it called “open, transparent multistakeholder processes” to develop codes of conduct that, though voluntary, would be legally enforceable by the Federal Trade Commission.

In plain English, this means that groups of interested parties, including technical experts, companies, consumer advocates, criminal-law-enforcement representatives, and academics will meet publicly and develop, by consensus, industry by industry, voluntary practices to protect online consumer privacy. For companies that choose to adopt them, the rules would be legally binding and enforced by the FTC.

The main advantages of this approach, which has been used for years to govern both the Internet (via a group called the IETF) and Web (via a group called the W3C), are its speed, flexibility, and efficiency. Such processes would also tend to encourage buy-in by the companies who participated and build trust with consumers.

One obvious reason this approach is so appealing right now is that privacy legislation, which the Administration plan also asks Congress to develop and pass, is likely to be a long time coming and, when it arrives, may well have trouble keeping pace with technological change. But the sort of consensus processes the Administration is calling for could be resurrected periodically over the years to quickly address a changing Internet landscape.

Time will tell whether multi-stakeholder processes will indeed succeed where government and industry have so far fallen short. But this innovative approach is certainly worth a try and may well bring some improvements in consumer privacy more quickly than waiting for Congress to address the issue.

If such processes do take place, we will keep you abreast of their progress.

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Jeffrey Fox

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