If there’s anything remarkable about President Obama’s new “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” it’s that it hasn’t raised much of a ruckus in Silicon Valley. Internet giants such as Google and others aren’t raising hell; in fact, they’ve happily enlisted themselves in the fight for privacy by agreeing to implement “Do Not Track” buttons.
It wasn’t always like this. Just last May companies including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and others sent out a strongly worded letter opposing a similar proposal, the Social Networking Privacy Act, introduced in the California State Senate.
So why the change of heart? One big difference is that the California bill was more stringent, asking companies to comply with information removal requests within 48 hours and present users with privacy settings before they even tried out the site.
The biggest factor in the industry’s new attitude, however, is that this is just a policy outline, one that will be sent to a Congress that isn’t likely to touch it anytime soon.
“I think there are a lot of companies that have been concerned by the recent litigation and constant crtiticism who see this as an opportunity to be at the table and help shape solutions,” says Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum and former chief privacy officer of DoubleClick.
In other words, not only is it good PR for companies beset by accusations of privacy violations, it is also an opportunity to influence lawmakers in the case that Congress actually drafts legislation.
By visibly focusing on a few problem areas like targeted ads, Google also gets a little slack from privacy advocates who want to see broader policy changes that would affect every single aspect of its business. What makes this an even sweeter deal for Google is that allowing users to opt-out of targeted ads probably won’t hurt its bottom line.
“There have been opt-out options that have been around for 10 years,” says Polonetsky. “They run, roughly, at about a 1% opt-out rate.”
“‘Do Not Track’ isn’t going to make more people opt-out. You still have to go in and adjust the settings and most of us don’t want to bother with it. What it will do is actually make that setting work.”
This is a win-win situation. Users get an easy-to-understand opt-out option that doesn’t reset when they delete their cookies, companies like Google look good without actually losing any revenue and the government ends up looking like responsible stewards of the people’s privacy.
That’s why reviews of the “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights” have been generally positive across the board. As it’s phrased now, both consumers and Internet companies can imagine a world where their interests are protected. It might not go far enough for some, but it’s a start.
“I’m optimistic that there will be enough major players cooperating that we’ll see real successes in a few key areas,” says Polonetsky. “If we try to solve all of the privacy issues for the whole industry, we’ll probably be arguing for the next 50 years.”