FTC Big Wig Wants Consumers to 'Reclaim Their Names'

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FTC commish says consumer privacy needs a shot in the arm.
FTC commish says consumer privacy needs a shot in the arm.

Julie Brill, the Federal Trade Commission commissioner most closely involved with privacy issues, yesterday called for a “comprehensive initiative” she dubbed “Reclaim Your Name” that would give consumers more knowledge of and control over personal data that companies use to market to them.

In a keynote address at the Computers, Freedom & Privacy Conference in Washington, DC, Brill noted that consumers are “loath to examine the price we pay” for taking advantage of communications capabilities and entertainments offered up by new conduits to cyberspace. Cautioning that 90% of all existing data has been generated in just the past two years and that the total will double every two years hence, Brill asserted that the time has come for a new system for privacy protection.

“I support legislation that would require data brokers to provide notice, access, and correction rights to consumers scaled to the sensitivity and use of the data at issue,” she said, adding that Congress should require sellers of third-party customer data to give consumers the ability to opt out of information used for marketing.

But Brill emphasized that consumers couldn't wait for a long legislative process to ensure their privacy. “I would suggest we need a comprehensive initiative—one I am calling ‘Reclaim Your Name,” she said, to allow consumers “to be the ones to decide how much to share, with whom, and for what purpose.”

Marketing industry advocates met Brill's proposal with skepticism, saying that there is no magic bullet available to reconcile free data exchange and privacy. “It's really important to distinguish between how self-regulation and consumer choice address this issue for one marketing practice over another,” said Rachel Nyswander Thomas, VP of Government Affairs for the Direct Marketing Association (DMA).

“DMA guidelines already give consumers lots of choices for control of their personal information,” she added, citing as an example the universal opt-out system offered by the Digital Advertising Alliance. “We and the FTC can always do more, but the DMA is interested in meaningful, new ways to create transparency, rather than attaching a slogan to something that already exists.”

But Gautam Hans, a fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that consumer opt-outs are not a cure-all for the problem. “Yes, people can opt out of lots of things, but there are areas where they have little choice, such as in financial transactions,” he said. “[Brill's] initiative is a voluntary one for data-providers; it's not new regulation. We're happy to see it and think it can be the start of better things to come.”

Another key participant in the consumer privacy debate says that Brill's proposal focuses on the negatives of data collection to the detriment of the positives. “I find Commisioner Brill's logic to be inverted,” said DMA counsel Stuart Ingis. “Say she is one of more than 100 Julie Brills in the U.S. If she and the other Julie Brills ‘take their names back,' then she, in essence, will make it so she can't be distinguished from all the other Julie Brills. Data is revolutionizing the world for the better.”

In her speech, Brill noted that Acxiom, which she labeled “the Big Daddy of all data brokers,” had announced plans to allow consumers open access to the dossiers the company keeps on them. She called this a welcome step, though added that most consumers would be hard pressed to find Acxiom or even know it exists.  Acxiom had not issued a release announcing such a move at presstime.  A company spokesman contacted by Direct Marketing News had no comment.

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