As long as I’ve been in digital media, there have been few political issues that have really riled up the industry. There’s a long-standing discussion about the right path for digital rights management to take — the copyright protection particularly for audio and video files — and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act enacted in 1998. There was the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also passed in 1998.
While the telecommunications industry that much of the Internet rests on is heavily regulated, what we’re doing here online is not.
Regular laws still apply, of course, but the Internet has largely benefited from both a hands-off approach by Congress and federal agencies, and perhaps also from a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the technology.
Congress is beginning to catch up.
Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and he’s reportedly working on a bill to protect our Internet privacy.
I look at issues like this from two perspectives:
- Hey, I don’t want you collecting a bunch of data about me!
- Wow, look how cool it is that my iPhone knows where I am!
Unfortunately for the sake of innovation, a lot of what we can now do online requires the latter response from regulators, Congress and the general public. Here’s what worries me: As Internet innovation has sped along the past dozen years, the industry has depended on the public and lawmakers ignoring the man behind the curtain. And Congress tends to act with a very blunt sword when it approaches issues like copyright, privacy and technology.
But in the industry, we haven’t helped ourselves with things like:
- Inability to protect customers’ information from data theft
- Opaque and lengthy terms of service and privacy policies that only make lawyers happy
- Ignoring opportunities to make our customers our best defense against harmful legislation
I don’t think Boucher’s intentions are to in any way stifle innovation or hamper the industry. But he’s clearly targeting consumers’ sense that their privacy is compromised just by being online. As an industry, we have to do a better job of educating our customers about why our innovation and information is so critical to them — and we have to give them easy ways to opt out if they can’t get past the squeamish factor.
Recently, several Internet advertising groups released a set of guidelines aimed at protecting consumers and forestalling damaging privacy legislation. We’ll see if it’s enough.