WaPo Parrots Industry Line On New “Privacy” Group

November 17, 2008 4:39 pm

Looks like The Washington Post got spun just a bit on a story about a new group said to be advocating for increased online privacy.

Under the milquetoast headline, “A New Voice in Online Privacy: Group Wants Tighter Rules for Collecting, Using Consumer Data”, the paper reports:

A group of privacy scholars, lawyers and corporate officials are launching an advocacy group today designed to help shape standards around how companies collect, store and use consumer data for business and advertising.

Privacy scholars pushing for more online privacy makes sense. And “lawyers” could mean a lot of things. But exactly which “corporate officials” have an interest in tighter rules governing online consumer privacy?

Read on and things become clearer: The group, says the Post, is sponsored by AT&T, and will be led in part by Jules Polonetsky, “who until this month was in charge of AOL’s privacy policy.”

The paper adds:

Internet companies have come under fire for tracking consumers’ online habits in order to tailor ads relevant to their interests. Lawmakers have held several hearings this year to examine online privacy protections.

President-elect Barack Obama has cited privacy as one of the technology issues his administration would address, setting the stage for a debate over standards for online publishers and advertisers. Obama also said he would appoint the first chief technology officer, who may be charged with making government data more transparent while protecting citizens’ privacy. The Future of Privacy Forum will seek to work with the government on these issues.

So, reading between the lines, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going on here. Corporations understand that stricter privacy regulations are coming, no matter what they do. So they’re trying to get out in front, by funding an advocacy group that appears to put them on the right side of the issue, but will almost certainly work to ensure that whatever reforms are put in place won’t be too onerous for internet companies.

Not that that’s unusual in Washington. But why should Post readers have to read between the lines to understand what’s really going on?

Since the Post appears not to have bothered to look into the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) much beyond reading and transcribing its press release, we asked the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading advocacy organization for the public interest in the online sphere, what they knew about the group.

In response, we hardly received a ringing endorsement of FPF’s bona fides as an advocate for stricter privacy standards. “This is the first we’ve heard of this group, so we’ll have to wait and see,” an EFF spokesperson told us.

We should note, by the way, the San Francisco Chronicle did better in giving its readers an accurate picture of what’s going on, reporting in the lede of its story:

AT&T is funding a group run by some of the nation’s top privacy experts that aims to influence policy in the Obama administration and develop best practices on privacy for businesses.

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