We Need An Online Bill of Rights

We all need to be more assertive in protecting our online privacy; the FCC can help

The Internet’s openness is critical to continued innovation, economic expansion, and healthy evolution in the ways we educate, interact and entertain.

But first, we need to define “open.” Right now the word connotes “open season” on consumer exploitation by criminals and by the many companies who blatantly disregard consumer privacy and safety. The internet isn’t open if people don’t dare venture out.

The FCC has just released an ambitious blueprint for extending broadband access to all Americans. Access is a laudable goal. But the FCC must recognize that for the internet to truly be open to consumers – not just available – it requires enhancing online safety.

According to a recent FCC survey, nearly half of those Americans who remain offline do so in part because they fear “all the bad things that can happen on the Internet,” while 57% strongly agree that it is too easy to have their personal information stolen online  – as do 39% of broadband users. 24% of broadband users strongly agree that the Internet is too dangerous for children,  and 56% believe there is too much pornography and offensive material on the Internet.

To truly be open to consumers, we must establish technical and policy norms that ensure the privacy and safety of the general online public.

If we’re reasonably informed, we know the measures to take to protect ourselves: don’t provide personal or financial information in response to unsolicited email; delve into profile preferences on social networking sites and block default settings that share our information with strangers and advertisers.  A well-informed user can avoid much of the risk associated with identity theft, commercial exploitation, or physical predation.

But the prevailing assumption remains buyer beware. If you don’t read long, eye-glazing privacy policies you risk being exploited.  If you don’t check out  features that seem uncannily responsive to your online activity, your actions and info will be telegraphed in new ways. If you don’t know how to evaluate services for built in safety and privacy features you risk falling through the gaps. Awareness of these realities inhibits current users and deters many of those who remain offline.

The responsibility to protect yourself and any children in your family can never be abdicated.  Paradoxically, however, being smart consumers and making the right demands of the companies whose services we use and of our government officials can make our task a lot easier.  The FCC can help by fostering user education that encourages not only proper self-defense but the kind of awareness that makes consumers demand better performance on the safety and privacy fronts. It can also strongly encourage the industry to build safer products and services.

One way to frame what we should demand as consumers is a Bill of Rights. Ideally these rights will be adopted by  industry voluntarily, rather than forced via legislation. As consumers it is our collective responsibility to demand and therefore earn these rights. But considering them as a body is clarifying.

The Safe Internet Alliance has drafted such a Bill of Rights, and work is underway to collect industry and consumer input into a final version. Here is a sampling.

You have the right to an informed online experience.

  • You should be informed in advance about any potential safety or privacy risks in products, web programs and services such as an instant messaging,  social networking, location technology, or wired devices such as cell phones and game consoles.
  • When services are upgraded, you have the right to be informed of new features and their impact on your safety in advance of rollout. You should  have a clear way to opt out of or block any features you’re uncomfortable with.
  • You have the right to receive advance notice of any intended changes in the terms and conditions that will affect your safety, privacy, or alter the terms in any  other substantial way, rather than being hostage to a site’s claim that their terms are ‘subject to change at any time.’

You have the right to set your own terms for your online experience and to manage the online experience of minors in your care. That includes the right

  • to block content you do not wish to see.
  • to block individual users, groups, or types of users from contacting you, no matter what your age.
  • to know whether and how you are being monitored online—such as which of your activities are being tracked and to whom they are being reported. Children have this right, too.

You have the right to expect online products and services to guard your safety and privacy, e.g.,

  • to know the privacy and safety policies of online products and services. These should be easy to find and easy to understand.
  • to know the terms of any third party applications a service uses or passes users through to. These terms should be explicitly displayed as part of the transition process.
  • to control your personally identifiable information (PII), or indirectly identifiable information (III) is yours. With your permission, sites can be stewards of that information, but your information is not any company’s or entity’s asset unless you have expressly given this permission and been offered a realistic option of using the service without giving this permission.

As the FCC moves forward to expand access, it should place a premium on increasing the protections afforded consumers — and deploying quality online consumer education that will help consumers protect themselves and make the right demands of service providers.



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