Federal Trade Commission Chairman: Internet Privacy Policies “Don’t Protect Consumers”

In recent Senate Commerce Committee  hearings about privacy policies the talk was breathlessly serious but – as usual – much of the dialog and most of the legislation are clearly years behind the internet realities.

The *most important issue* in my opinion is generally overlooked, and that is the *fact* that what most of us believe to be “our private information” is now scattered across the internet, easily retrievable.   The privacy ship sailed long ago, so by far the major issues left are how to remedy *abuses* of privacy.

I would suggest that the abuses are generally caused by lack of transparency in terms of identities of business entities and that the solution should revolve around market driven sales transparency and legally driven identity transparency.

I personally don’t object to having all online sales activity legally required to disclose the name of the purveyor – either a registered business or an individual so they can be identified by the consumer and by authorities.   However there are probably various reasons – free speach and otherwise – to limit this disclosure to the ISP level.    But a huge mistake in my opinion is that we are not requiring enough responsibility on the side of ISPs, online advertisers, and (very importantly) the big online ad agencies like Google who are not required to disclose spammers to authorities.

This is a complex issue for many reasons, but we’ve erred on the side of letting non-disclosure trump common sense, and this has led to the massive level of online commercial abuse we see now all over the internet.      From legal scamming like overpriced self help books and ringtone sales to illegal phishing attacks, much of the trouble would disappear if Google, ISPs, and authorities simply made sure that  all legal online transactions could be traced to a legally responsible party.     e.g. if you sell online, you must be identifiable as an individual or business, much in the same way we expect any offline business to be accountable to a variety of checks and balances in place in the offline world.   Online efficiency has eliminated many of the normal “barriers to entry” for businesses.    That’s a great thing overall, but it means we need more in place than the current relaxed systems and standards that facilitate too much abuse.