Net Neutrality? Not In the European Union

November 19, 2010

At the ‘The Open Internet and Net Neutrality in Europe’ summit last week, Europe’s leading Internet policy maker cited healthy competition as the reason the EU will not introduce net neutrality legislation designed to prevent companies from prioritizing – or blocking – certain content as has been proposed in the U.S.

Instead, EU nations will continue to rely on established guidelines that protect consumers and prevent anticompetitive behavior by telecommunications and cable firms, said Neelie Kroes E.U. commissioner for the digital agenda. Referring to the EU’s telecom regulatory framework adopted by the European Commission in 2009, which provides clear guidelines for what is and isn’t permissible behavior, Kroes added that the national regulatory authorities overseeing the practices of their local network operators are “our best insurance policy” and “competition is the open Internet’s best friend.”

The EU’s decision appears to be another blow to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which has been unsuccessful in adopting net neutrality legislation, particularly after the recent court decision favoring Comcast cast further doubts on the FCC’s authority over any broadband regulation.

The EU’s decision could change should “significant and persistent problems” anticompetitive problems emerge in the future, said Kroes, but believes consumers will guide the industry’s behavior.


Government Prepares to Increase Internet Privacy Protections for Consumers

November 16, 2010

In response to the increasingly key role that personal information plays in the internet economy and the wholesale exploitation of that information by some internet segments, the Obama administration is planning to increase the policing of Internet privacy by introducing new laws and creating a new position to oversee the effort, according to a new article in the Wall Street Journal.

Scheduled to be unveiled in the next few weeks, the initiative marks a shift from previous administrations that steered clear of government regulations out of fear of stifling innovation.

At issue – Today, U.S. consumers don’t have a blanket right to privacy

In spite of commonly held beliefs, there is no overarching law or set of laws that protects consumer’s privacy – online or offline – in the U.S.

This means that internet privacy issues are generally relegated to policing by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) which can only take action if a company’s privacy violations are deemed unfair or deceptive.

Consumer’s right to privacy is legally protected by strong laws in many other countries like those in the European Union – which explains why most privacy cases and penalties against U.S. Internet companies, like the recent privacy crackdowns on Facebook Inc. and Google Inc. were led by Canada, Germany, Spain, and the U.K.

Industry measures fail to adequately protect consumers

While some industry players maintain an outstanding track record of consumer protections, other players have specifically engineered their businesses to collect and exploit consumer information, and the bulk of players fall somewhere in-between these extremes. Given this reality, a key issue in the debate is whether the Internet industry is even capable of establishing an effective self-policing model.

The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which represents the online-ad industry which has reaped the ire of many online consumers over their personal data collection tactics, is already protesting the prospect of new laws. “We believe we are living up to consumer-privacy expectations and are very advanced in privacy protections and innovation,” said Mike Zaneis, senior vice president for the organization. See my blog ( Ad Stalking – When Ads Follow You Online to learn how dissatisfied consumers are with some online ad tactics.)

Internet Privacy has fast become a very hot topic on Capitol Hill

The outrage over the depth and speed of consumer’s personal data exploitation has been heard loud and clear in D.C. and several proposals are being circulated as to how best address the abuse.

Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas), co-chairman of the Congressional Privacy Caucus and ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said he welcomed the administration’s privacy initiative. “Better late than never,” Mr. Barton said. “I am glad more and more folks, in the government and otherwise, are beginning to realize that there is a war against privacy.”

There are currently two proposals in front of congress that relate to this balance information sharing; the Privacy bill draft by Rep. Sterns (R-FL) and outgoing Rep. Boucher (D-VA) designed to “assure a higher level of [online] privacy protection” for online surfers, by establishing an opt-in model for collecting Web surfing information for marketing purposes, and Representative Rush’s (D-IL) Best Practices Act of 2010 proposal with the following key provisions:

  • Ensure that consumers have meaningful choices about the collection, use, and disclosure of their personal information.
  • Require companies that collect personal information to disclose their practices with respect to the collection, use, disclosure, merging, and retention of personal information, and explain consumers’ options regarding those practices.
  • Require companies to provide disclosures of their practices in concise, meaningful, timely, and easy-to-understand notices, and direct the Federal Trade Commission to establish flexible and reasonable standards and requirements for such notices.
  • Require companies to obtain “opt-in” consent to disclose information to a third party.  In the bill, the term, “third party” would be defined based on consumers’ reasonable expectations rather than corporate structure.
  • Establish a “safe harbor” that would exempt companies from the “opt-in” consent requirement, provided those companies participate in a universal opt-out program operated by self-regulatory bodies and monitored by FTC.
  • Require companies to have reasonable procedures to assure the accuracy of the personal information they collect.  The bill would also require the companies to provide consumers with reasonable access to, and the ability to correct or amend certain information.
  • Require companies to have reasonable procedures to secure information and to retain personal information only as long as is necessary to fulfill a legitimate business or law enforcement need.

U.S. Commerce Department Assistant Secretary Lawrence E. Strickling said in comments in October that Internet privacy needs to be strengthened for the industry to sustain users’ trust. “It’s difficult for consumers to act in their own interest if the law doesn’t meet their basic expectations” He cautioned that the departments’ upcoming report on the topic isn’t a final position statement, but rather the beginning of a “dialogue” that would lead to an official administration policy on information privacy.

The Federal Trade Commission has also announced they will be issuing a report on Internet privacy by the end of the year.

Increased privacy protections are by no means guaranteed

The Obama administration and proponents of increased consumer privacy protections in both the House and the Senate will face stiff challenges.

Though Republicans generally support privacy, they are unlikely to want to increase the authority of the FTC. They may also be reluctant to support legislation that big internet companies – and heavy campaign donors – find unpalatable. And when your information is worth its weight in gold in the digital economy, some companies will find any restrictions to using your information unpalatable.

Privacy advocates on the other hand are likely to balk at any proposals that lack the teeth of enforcement, and there may be strong splits between advocacy groups as to the approach and penalties proposed.

The key will be in creating an appropriate framework of regulatory guidelines, industry innovation, and consumer education. This needs to be approached with an understanding that there will be ongoing tension over how to strike the right balance between corporate (and government) data collection and consumer privacy because there isn’t one ‘right balance’ point. Privacy and authentication/transactional security needs will exist on a sliding scale that varies between the situational needs and consumer comfort levels.

What should be unanimously agreed upon are these three core consumer protections:

  • Transparency – you need to be able to see what information is being collected about you and have a clear understanding of how it’s being used – particularly if that information is shared or sold to other parties
  • Choice – you need to be able to easily find and modify information in your profiles
  • Control – you need the ability to effect a one-click opt-out of data collection

We are at a crucial fork in the road. The decisions that will be made in the next few months regarding consumer’s rights to personal privacy and control of personal information are likely to echo through history. And you have a very high stake in the outcome.


Take 3 Minutes to Protect children from Slavery and Sex Trafficking

November 13, 2010

An estimated 3,287 children are trafficked around the globe every single day according to the United Nations Children’s Fund, (UNICEF).

To counter this horrific practice, anti-human trafficking organizations around the country are advocating for the passage of the Child Protection Compact Act – critical legislation designed to help protect children in targeted countries from slavery and sex trafficking.

This bipartisan legislation passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee unanimously in September, and the bill was sent to the Senate floor for a vote. Though the bill was close to a vote, Congress adjourned for the elections before it came up.

On November 15, Congress will return to Washington, D.C. giving us an opportunity to pass this urgent legislation through the Senate, and the opportunity to get the bill out of committee and through the House.

Donate 3 minutes NOW to help stop the trafficking of children

You can help ensure that this vital legislation is passed by contacting your Member of Congress today to urge him/her to support the Child Protection Compact Act. Then ask your friends to do the same.

This important and innovative legislation has been endorsed by International Justice Mission, World Vision, Amnesty International USA, Freedom House, Not for Sale, the SOLD Project, Polaris, Equality Now and Sojourners.

Together we will make a difference.


Home Broadband 2010

September 9, 2010

I am continuing my practice of sharing recent internet safety research pieces:


Study by Pew Internet & American Life Project:

After several years of double digit growth, broadband adoption slowed dramatically in 2010. African-Americans experienced broadband adoption growth in 2010 well above the national average

After several consecutive years of modest but consistent growth, broadband adoption slowed dramatically in 2010. Two-thirds of American adults (66%) currently use a high-speed internet connection at home, a figure that is not statistically different from what The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found at a similar point in 2009, when 63% of Americans were broadband adopters.

The lack of growth in broadband adoption at the national level was mirrored across a range of demographic groups, with African-Americans being a major exception. Broadband adoption by African-Americans now stands at 56%, up from 46% at a similar point in 2009. That works out to a 22% year-over-year growth rate, well above the national average and by far the highest growth rate of any major demographic group. Over the last year, the broadband adoption gap between blacks and whites has been cut nearly in half:

  • In 2009 65% of whites and 46% of African-Americans were broadband users (a 19-point gap)
  • In 2010 67% of whites and 56% of African-Americans are broadband users (an 11-point gap)

By a 53%-41% margin, Americans say they do not believe that the spread of affordable broadband should be a major government priority. Contrary to what some might suspect, non-internet users are less likely than current users to say the government should place a high priority on the spread of high-speed connections.

In this survey, Americans were asked: “Do you think that expanding affordable high-speed internet access to everyone in the country should be a top priority for the federal government, important but a lower priority, not too important, or should it not be done?” The majority chose the last two options:

  • 26% of Americans say that expansion of affordable broadband access should not be attempted by government.
  • 27% said it was “not too important” a priority
  • 30% said it was an important priority.
  • 11% said it should be a top priority.

Those who are not currently online are especially resistant to government efforts to expand broadband access. Fully 45% of non-users say government should not attempt to make affordable broadband available to everyone, while just 5% of those who don’t use the internet say broadband access should be a top federal government priority. Younger users (those under age 30) and African-Americans were the most likely to favor expanded government efforts towards broadband access, while older Americans were among the least likely to back the expansion of affordable broadband access as a government priority.

Click here to learn more: Home Broadband 2010


Traveling This summer? Know What Cell Phone Laws Apply

July 21, 2010

Before crossing state or county lines on your summer road trip, take a moment to learn what the cell phone laws are for any area you plan on visiting.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, talking on a cell phone while driving is now illegal in 8 states, the District of Columbia and many jurisdictions, and texting while driving is banned for all users in 30 states and the District of Columbia.

States that ban talking on cell phones when driving include California, Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington and the District of Columbia. In Utah, talking while driving is illegal only when the driver is also committing another moving violation other than speeding.

Even where states have not implemented bans, restrictions may apply by jurisdiction. Localities that have enacted restrictions on cell phone use include: Oahu, HI; Chicago, IL; Brookline, MA; Detroit, MI; Santa Fe, NM; Brooklyn, North Olmstead, and Walton Hills, OH; Conshohocken, Lebanon, and West Conshohocken, PA; Waupaca County, WI; and Cheyenne, WY.

States that ban texting when driving are highlighted in green on the map below, states shown in blue have restrictions for some driver segments, like young drivers and bus drivers. (For a full description of laws, see the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety‘s interactive maps)

Stay safe

Regardless of the legality of talking or texting while driving, numerous studies have made it clear that driving while talking on a cell phone (hand-held or hands-free), or texting significantly increases your accident risk. Consider the following stats:

  • Using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. (Source: University of Utah)
  • Driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37 percent. (Source: Carnegie Mellon)
  • Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver, and more than half a million were injured. (Source: NHTSA)
  • Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
  • The annual cost of crashes caused by cell phone use is estimated at $43 billion (Source: Harvard Center for Risk Analysis).

This summer, may your trips be distraction free and your memories unencumbered by accidents.


The Internet’s Red-light District Domain .XXX is Closer to Arriving, Will It Make a Difference?

July 2, 2010

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) has finally bowed to pressure to reconsider creating a unique .xxx suffix for adult entertainment Web sites, in spite of objections from both religious groups and much of the adult entertainment industry ending a 10 year battle over what some consider formal acknowledgment of pornography’s prominent place on the Internet.

The move is intended to help parents filter out pornography sites for their children, and give a quality assurance to consumers of adult entertainment, but it does not force adult entertainment sites to use the new domain, and few adult-only sites are likely to give up their existing .com addresses.

The likelihood of the .xxx domain creation is a triumph for ICM Registry LLC, based in Florida, which had applied repeatedly for the domain, and previously been turned down three times since 2000. Their vision is that this will create a red-light district in cyberspace that is a clean, transparent area, regulated to be free of spam, viruses and credit card thieves.

Christian groups object to the .xxx domain out of concern that it will increase the amount of pornography online. Similarly, Diane Duke, executive director The Free Speech Coalition, a trade association representing more than 1,000 adult entertainment businesses, said “there is no support from our community ” for the plan due to concerns of  that the board overseeing the dot-xxx domain could engage in censorship and that the entire industry could come under increased regulation. “If the board doesn’t like what a producer creates, there is the possibility that they could censor it,” Ms. Duke said. “This will ghettoize our industry and make us a target of regulation.”

ICM stands to reap enormous financial gains from the .xxx domain; they will charge $60 per domain registration per year, with $10 going to a nonprofit organization promoting “responsible business practices” for the industry. (In comparison, a .com address costs just $7) ICM”s chairman said that over 100,000 domains had preregistered, and that he expects to have 500,000 sites registered on the .xxx domain by the time it’s rolled out in 9 to 12 months, representing roughly 10% of the five million to six million adult online sites.

The Free Speech coalition believes many of those registering are likely to be doing so “defensively” by businesses that wanted to prevent their names from being hijacked. Mr. Lawley said businesses could ensure that their names were not misused in the dot-xxx world by paying a one-time fee, to be set from $50 to $250.

ICANN, which governs Internet addresses, reversed a 2007 vote to reject the .xxx domains, that was based on technical grounds. Peter Dengate Thrush, the agency’s chairman, said they have no interest or stake in the content of Web sites. “The applicants believe that this will allow people to filter pornography more effectively,” he said. “If they do that and it works, that’s great for them. But that’s not part of our issue.” He shrugged off criticisms that ICANN was creating a new platform for Internet porn.  “We’re not in the content business, and that’s up to national governments and lawmakers and people who are qualified to make judgments,” he said.

Safety experts question the argument that this domain will help block adult content from minors. “If it is still going to be available on other domains, it just sounds ineffective” as a way of regulating adult content, said Cathy Wing, of Media Awareness Network, a Canadian nonprofit that advises parents and teachers about Web use. She also noted that filters are “easily bypassed” and would not stop children accessing porn.

ICANN agency now has to negotiate a final contract with ICM, while religious groups and the Free Speech coalition have vowed to continue their fight against the dot-xxx domains.

The bottom line? Should this domain be approved, it may accomplish the goal of providing a safer online experience for consumers of adult content, but don’t expect it to make a real difference in filtering out pornography for minors. The big winner will be ICM.


California Senate Bill 1361 Well Intentioned, but Misses the Mark

June 22, 2010

California Senate Bill 1361, that takes aim at tackling the potential risks that arise when minors expose their home address and/or phone numbers on social networking sites, is well intended but flawed.

Introduced by Senator Corbett in February, the bill aims to prohibit social networking sites (per their definition) from displaying, to the public or other registered users, the home address or telephone number of a registered user of that Internet Web site who is under 18 years of age. (Full text below)

Here’s why the current fast tracking of this bill should be dropped, and a more thoughtful review process established. I’m confident that under a more rigorous review, the bill’s flaws will come fully to light.

  1. There are many legitimate reasons for a minor to share their address or phone number on a social networking site. For example:
    1. Consider the online services that enable users to send out party invitations to friends – these invitations obviously need an address for the party location and a phone number to RSVP. Some of these invitation services are standalone applications, in other cases the invitation functionality is but one feature of larger services – MySpace, for example, has an ‘Events’ feature that allows members to send invitations – but in all cases, the invitation services fall squarely under the definition of a social network. I find it hard to believe that this invitation scenario is what the bill was intended to prohibit.
    2. Church forums, youth forums, clubs, and organizations whose websites include phone trees, or the youths addresses and that allow socializing would fall under this legislation, making many of these subject to the civil penalties proscribed.
  2. On sites like Facebook, where most users provide their full name, city and state, would-be criminals don’t need to find a user’s phone number and address on their page – they can simply look up that information and more on public sites like directory services, and property records. School websites are also likely to help locate a student due to the defined geographical boundaries associated with schools. Does the State of California intend to block all of these access points?
  3. The bill specifically calls out that it would be a violation to show address/phone number information in fields specified to share this information – leaving any minor fully able to share this in any other field on their site, essentially undercutting the object of the legislation.
  4. This bill is likely to have the unintended consequence of increasing the incentive for youth to lie about their age when registering for social networking sites, to simply avoid any hassle.

There is absolutely nothing wrong in minors sharing address and phone number information with friends when done appropriately, and when the service itself does not exploit or share this information with other parties.  Teaching youth when it is, and isn’t, appropriate to share address and phone information, and with whom is it and isn’t appropriate to share such information will achieve the intended goal, while not throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Being a strong advocate for online safety, it always feels odd when I’m compelled to argue against an “internet safety” bill, but a flawed bill is not a solution.



SECTION 1.  Part 2.7 (commencing with Section 60) is added to

Division 1 of the Civil Code, to read:


60.  (a) A social networking Internet Web site shall not display, to the public or other registered users, the home address or telephone number of a registered user who identifies himself or herself as being under 18 years of age.

(b) The provisions of subdivision (a) shall only apply to a web text  field specifically designated to display the registered user’s home address or telephone number.

64.  For purposes of this part:

(a) “Social networking Internet Web site” means any business, organization, or other entity that provides or offers a service through the Internet that permits a registered user to access, meet, congregate, or communicate with other registered users for social networking purposes. “Social networking Internet Web site” does not include a business, organization, or other entity that only provides electronic mail service.

(b) “Registered user” means any person who has created an account

for purposes of accessing a social networking Internet Web site.

65.  A social networking Internet Web site that willfully and knowingly violates any provision of this part shall be liable for a civil penalty, not to exceed ten thousand dollars ($10,000) for each violation of this part.