Against all odds, the government has managed to make the issue of online privacy even more boring. It’s true! Several news outlets (including this one now) are referring to a recent proposal from the Commerce Department as “the privacy bill of rights,” to try to spice things up a bit.
In reality, it’s a 70-page document called the Internet Policy Task Force Privacy Green Paper. In it, the Commerce Department is suggesting that online privacy issues be regulated inside what it’s calling a “Dynamic Privacy Framework” that’s “designed to protect privacy, transparency, and informed choice while also recognizing the importance of improving customer service, recognizing the dynamic nature of both technologies and markets, and encouraging continued innovation over time.” Sounds simple enough.
(More on TIME.com: FTC’s ‘Do Not Track’ Is More ‘Please Don’t Track’)
The bullet points are that websites that collect personal data would need to let people know what data they’re collecting and how they’re using it. These sites would also need to let people opt out of having their data collected.
The paper pitches the idea of “codes of conduct” that would be “voluntary but enforceable rules” that sites would agree to follow, with the FTC having the power to go after sites that break the rules. Mind you, these sites have to agree to follow the rules in the first place but perhaps participating sites would be considered more trustworthy than others.
These codes of conduct would be developed by government representatives and pro-privacy groups but would also rely on input from web sites and online marketing firms themselves, so there’s plenty of potential for those involved to butt heads over several aspects of the program.
The elephant in the room is the fact that several of the popular free websites and services on the internet are free because they sell non-identifying user data and surfing habits to marketing companies.
(More on TIME.com: Facebook in Hot Water Over Leaked User IDs)
So a system that lets users opt out of having their data collected sounds good on paper, but if everyone opts out, we’re all going to have to start paying for Facebook and Gmail and a lot of the other things we’ve been using for free all these years. They’re not just supported by display advertising—our surfing habits are being sold, too.
You can have free or you can have not free, but both cost something online.
If people get all riled up at the thought of Facebook knowing where they’ve been even if Facebook only identifies them as nonsensical numbers in a database, imagine how riled up they’d get if Facebook said, “Sure, you can opt out from our data collection practices but you’ll have to pay $20 per month to use Facebook if you do.”
That’s a possibility if something like this becomes legislation. It may be worth it to some people, and some people may choose to get tracked instead of paying for access to “free” sites and services. The Green Paper is simply a proposal at the moment, though, so we’ll have to wait and see what, if anything, eventually comes out of it.
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