Groups applaud push to boost policing of web privacy

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

image captionConsumer concerns over online privacy have grown over recent months

Advocacy groups have welcomed reports that the US government plans to boost the policing of online privacy with new laws and a new watchdog.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was set to unveil its new strategy in the coming weeks.

A more hands-on approach would mark a break from previous governments that relied on industry self-regulation.

Google and Facebook have been at the forefront of consumer privacy concerns.

In the summer, Facebook - the world's biggest social network with 500 million users - simplified its privacy settings following criticism from US senators, the European Union and civil liberty groups.

Google has more recently been in the firing line for its inadvertent collection of user data via its Street View cars.

It has been the subject of scrutiny from data protection agencies around the world as a result.

'Dismal scene'

The stepped-up approach to privacy from the US government is reportedly to be kicked off by the Commerce Department.

The Wall Street Journal said that it would not make specific recommendations but would say that the industry has not done a good enough job regulating itself so far.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is also expected to issue a report on internet privacy by the end of the year.

image captionFacebook simplified its privacy settings after criticism this summer

Industry speculation has suggested the FTC may call for a "do-not-track" tool so marketers and others cannot follow a user's every click online.

A special task force has also been formed to help turn recommendations into actual policy. A new federal position is expected to be created to enforce that policy.

"Such moves are long overdue," Jim Dempsey of the Center for Democracy and Technology told BBC News.

"In the US, this patchwork of some laws for medical information and different laws for financial data and a series of FTC rulings on online privacy, and some rules for e-mail, really doesn't serve anybody very well," Mr Dempsey added.

"The current system is just not working very well. The rules are just not very clear. The consumers don't really understand them.

"Companies don't really understand them and there is an underlying feeling that things have gone too far with the ease that data can be collected and shared."

That was a view echoed by Marc Rotenberg, president of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"It's been a dismal scene over the last couple of years in Washington over privacy," Mr Rotenberg said.

"One of the reasons the While House finally understands the need to move on this issue is that consumers are getting increasingly frustrated and agencies across Europe are saying to companies with good reason, 'your business practices violate our laws'."

The US does not have a comprehensive law on the books to deal with internet privacy.

Last week the European Union said it was also looking for tougher laws to control how personal information is used on the internet.

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