US data privacy plan not deregulation, says White House
By Brian Beary in Washington | Thursday 26 July 2012
With both the EU and US in the early stages of reviewing their online data privacy regimes, the White House has defended its blueprint against claims that it is too soft on the digital industry. Daniel Weitzner, President Barack Obama’s deputy chief technology officer for internet policy, said, on 25 July, that the ‘multi-stakeholder’ process the White House was proposing, which encourages companies to develop codes of conduct, “is not a code word for deregulation”. Weitzner admitted that “no one has to listen to us” as these codes are voluntary but he said that major companies have indicated to the US administration that they were willing to be bound by such codes. If companies do sign up, he said he was “very confident” that the US Federal Trade Commission would vigorously enforce the codes. Meanwhile, the White House will continue to urge the US Congress to enshrine into law the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights that Obama proposed in February 2012, he said.
Weitzner was addressing a seminar organised by the New America Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, and the Heinrich Böll Stiftung, the German Green Party’s think tank. His comments come as the EU institutions are working to update the Union’s framework following the Commission’s unveiling, in January 2012, of a long-awaited draft regulation. The dominant narrative so far has been that of EU lawmakers being more eager to enact an online privacy law than the US, which favours a softer approach. Weitzner said that the US Department of Commerce, which is responsible for drawing up the codes of conduct with industry, had already begun working with the mobile services sector. But Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights lobby, voiced doubts about Weitzner’s claim, noting that the ‘multi-stakeholder’ process he mentioned was “a code word for deregulation for some”.
While the consensus in the 1990s was that regulating the internet should be avoided to allow it to spread, now that the internet had gone from “the sideshow to the main show” given its huge economic importance, “clear but enforceable and flexible rules” were necessary, Weitzner said. Presently, the transatlantic flow of data is governed by the 2000 EU-US Safe Harbour Agreement, which requires US companies that wish to transfer data across the pond to adhere to EU data protection norms. There is a growing realisation that this agreement will need to be updated in light of the ongoing overhaul of the EU and US privacy frameworks. The Safe Harbour Agreement “does not work that well,” claimed Konstantin von Notz, German parliamentarian for the Green Party.
INTERNET FREEDOM MOVEMENT
The conference also discussed the big grassroots opposition movement that has exploded in recent months in response to governments’ efforts worldwide to tighten enforcement of intellectual property (IP) rights through the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), signed in October 2011. Internet freedom activist Markus Beckedahl, who runs the blog
netzpolitik.org, slammed the Commission for being “totally untransparent” in how it negotiated ACTA on behalf of the EU. The Commission failed to understand the growing power of the European Parliament, which, on 4 July, overwhelmingly rejected ACTA, Beckedahl noted.
On the US side, Sohn voiced disappointment that unlike in Europe where this issue had caught fire among the general public, “we are still not having a national conversation” on the balance to be struck between protecting both IP rights and internet freedom. In January 2012, internet freedom activists successfully persuaded the US Congress to shelve two bills - known by their acronyms PIPA and SOPA - that imposed stringent anti-piracy obligations on internet service providers. That decision came after the online encyclopaedia
Wikipediaorganised a one-day blackout in protest against the bills. However, Sohn noted that the music and movie industry lobbyists behind SOPA and PIPA had since regrouped and were now pushing Congress to enact a bill that obliges the US administration to devote more resources to enforcing IP rights.