Innovation in Silicon Valley risks being stifled by government if private industry cannot quickly develop safeguards for digital privacy, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-Palo Alto) said this week.
On Tuesday, nearly a decade after the congresswoman helped usher in the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, Eshoo joined Stanford Law School’s Ryan Calo and Common Sense Media’s Alan Simpson at “State of the Net: West,” a round table discussion that put online privacy at the center of the political debate over the future of the Internet.
“It’s no surprise that online privacy is at the forefront of these issues,” said Eshoo, a founding member of the Congressional Internet Caucus and ranking member of the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.
Eshoo said companies must focus on transparency to ensure that their customers, including children and their parents, are well informed about how to best manage their digital identities.
“Whether we’re dealing with parents, teens or adults, transparency should be central to that,” she said.
Calo agreed with Eshoo, saying that while government should not tell companies what to do with their data, consumers need to be better informed of what companies will do with that data and be given a choice to opt out. Unfortunately, he said, we are nowhere near that point.
“The problem, of course, is that there is no notice and there is no choice. Nobody reads privacy policies,” he said. “People that read them don’t understand them.”
Among the steps that should be taken to protect consumers, Calo said, is one that strengthens the Federal Trade Commission’s ability to go after companies that violate privacy rules.
“There should be a cause of action against a company where it can be shown that a user has taken a technological step to protect their privacy that the company then intentionally circumvented,” he said. Similar FTC rules that already exist are not strong enough, he said.
Protecting the privacy of minors was also front-and-center Tuesday, and Alan Simpson said one of the most important ways to protect children is to inform parents of how the digital world operates.
“You can’t protect your kids' privacy online unless you know how the online world works,” said Simpson, vice president of policy for Common Sense Media.
Simpson said that much of the work Common Sense does is simply to educate parents.
“If you don’t know how Facebook works, you won’t know what to tell your parents to do. This is Parenting 101 in the 21st century.”
Eshoo echoed the importance of staying on top of a changing technological landscape.
“Technology has changed dramatically since I was first elected,” said Eshoo.
“There were just 11 million wireless users when I first took office,” she said. “Most households watched movies at home through their VCR.”
Eshoo said that fostering a culture of innovation in Silicon Valley has been the core of her legislative work.
“This is the elite innovation hub of our nation, and we don’t stop. We’re not afraid to take risks,” she said, cautioning, however, that “science is under attack” in Washington.
“There’s a big debate about science and faith,” she said. “I always say I have faith in science.”
Just as science evolves, she said, so must government’s ability to regulate businesses that often outpace the legislative process. The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, she said, while important, is out of date.
“Technology changes so rapidly that one of the biggest challenges for me," she said, "is, how do you keep legislation that has been passed crisp and limber to keep up with the technological changes?”