Consumer Privacy: Moving the Conversation Forward

We live in an era where nearly every commercial interaction involves the exchange or use of personal data -- often without our knowing it. But for years, the legislative debate over how to provide consumers with more confidence, and businesses with more clarity, about the rules of the road for the use of private information has been stalled. Americans deserve more when it comes to their privacy, and that's why President Obama is pushing the ball -- and the dialogue -- forward by introducing three concrete privacy initiatives in just the first three months of this year.

First, new legislation providing strong protections for student privacy would give the confidence that families and educators deserve as more technology comes into the classroom. The President released his legislative proposal to ensure data collected in the classroom isn't used for behavioral advertising or harmful profiling, and effort is already getting traction. We're eager to work with Congress in a bipartisan way to pass important measure this year.

Second, data breach legislation would provide consumers with the peace of mind they deserve, and companies with the single standard they need to be responsible stewards of data -- particularly in a world where breaches are happening at a record pace. The President's legislative proposal here would establish a firm 30-day "shot clock" that companies have to notify consumers of a breach. Here also we have seen considerable legislative interest in this legislation, and coming off a year where over 100 million accounts were compromised in the United States alone, it's time for Congress to pass this common-sense measure.

Finally last month, in the spirit of sparking dialogue, the President released a first draft of legislation that would help realize the promise of the 2012 Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights -- a complex issue that merits some explanation.

We're happy to see that releasing the draft has had its intended effect: in conference halls, at think tanks, and in the broader public people are now are talking about a specific, comprehensive, legislative approach to consumer privacy.

This proposed legislation would create strong requirements that would give consumers new rights to control how data about them is collected and used, including the right to know how businesses are planning to collect and use information, and the rights to delete data they provide and to correct data that is wrong. The proposal also gives the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) new authority to levy millions in fines for violations of these requirements and other consumer privacy provisions. These consumer rights and the powers given to agencies charged with enforcing them don't exist today, but they should.

But this discussion draft is far from the final word on how to realize these important goals. We will continue to debate what are the appropriate exceptions and enforcement authorities, to whether the legislation should create a single national standard or rather be a federal complement to existing state laws. These are important and worthy discussions. Part of why we committed to put out a specific legislative proposal was to move the process forward while having the debate play out in the light of day, not behind closed doors with only a handful of special interests providing input.

Privacy law is tricky terrain -- done clumsily, a drive for strong consumer privacy could conflict with the desires for innovation and openness. No one wants to put search engines out of business, eliminate free email services enjoyed by tens of millions Americans, or block engineers from research or from developing the next voice-to-text app or mapping site. The answer cannot be that in order to preclude potential harm we effectively stop data from flowing across borders; that approach would be impractical and unwise.

A privacy law will necessarily be a delicate balance between providing the practical privacy protections and greater control over their data that consumers deserve; allowing for the data innovations consumers demand and are benefiting from today; and giving startups and other companies who are responsible stewards of data the flexibility they need to create the next new, in-demand innovation.

A world in which consumers feel powerless and uncertain; where companies lack clarity on how the rules of the road apply to their innovations; and where enforcement authorities have vague, limited tools to draw upon is unacceptable.

That's why the President is continuing the move the ball forward through these comprehensive, specific legislative proposals. We are taking privacy issues head-on not only because they matter, but because they deserve a nuanced, thoughtful debate.

We do so with an open mind, and are eager to discuss how to move proposals like these forward. A serious and transparent debate is certainly preferable to no debate at all.

Brian Deese is Senior Advisor to President, and Jeff Zients is Director of the National Economic Council, both at the White House.