by Matthew L. Schafer
In the opening comments of the hearing, Sen. Jay Rockefeller [D-WV] told a short story about a shopper wandering through the mall that had a machine watching his every move through the store, only to have that information sold to advertisers. He compared this to the current state of privacy online.
Tuesday’s hearing included FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, Apple, Inc. Vice President Guy Tribble, Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor, Alma Whitten of Google, Jim Harper of The Cato Institute, Dorothy Atwood of AT&T, and Joseph Turow of the University of Pennsylvania. In the first panel, Chairmen Leibowitz and Genachowski both expressed their concerns about the lack of privacy online.
Liebowitz also cited a British company’s April Fools joke where it added a line that to its contract, which told users that if they agreed the company owned their soul. Only 12% of users opted out of “Immortal Soul Clause.” Liebowitz also pointed out that while Internet search engines are supposed to anonymize search data, even anonymized search information can reveal peoples’ identity. In 2006 for example, using AOL search data The New York Times tracked down 62-year-old Thelma Arnold, a.k.a AOL user No. 4417749, in Lilburn, Ga.
In the second panel, comprised of scholars and industry executives, Facebook’s Bret Taylor argued that social technologies like Facebook are not detrimental to user privacy. He called the Internet a “passive repository of information.” Taylor also argued that Facebook provides users with “powerful control” over the information they choose to share with others. Taylor spent much of his testimony highlighting Facebook’s success as a social medium.
“American’s don’t want a situation where content is tailored for them based on the firm’s use of their data without their knowing it,” Turow testified. “Unfortunately the situation they don’t want is getting worse.”
Tuesday’s Senate hearing is just a first step in address what seems to be the ever growing concerns over privacy online. While it is currently unclear what next steps the government will take in addressing these concerns, it is unlikely that Congress will get a vote on any privacy legislation this year. Sen. John Kerry [D-MA] did release a statement, however, saying he intended to pursue legislation. The FTC is hoping to release recommendations regarding privacy online in the fall.