The issue of Internet privacy came to the forefront again recently when Google was ordered to remove certain private images of a well-known public figure. This case is yet another reminder to decision makers and stakeholders who influence organizations' websites to review their Internet and online privacy policies and procedures. It might even be wise to seek legal advice to ensure there aren't flaws or holes in the policies and procedures that could potentially land your company in hot water.
The recent privacy case involving Google
On November 6, 2013, a French court ordered Google to remove private images of former Formula One racing luminary Max Mosley, who sued the company to remove the photos from a sexual escapade. Google said it will appeal the ruling and has already attempted to remove many of the images from its search algorithms, but TechDirt's Mike Masnick thinks it will be nearly impossible to magically remove all of them from Google search results.
This case brings to light the certainty that tough decisions surrounding online privacy policies and procedures are continuing to beleaguer public and private organizations for managing online privacy. David Weslow, Attorney At Law with Wiley Rein, LLP, is a former software and web developer who now specializes in intellectual property and domain names, stated in a recent interview with me:
"The decision by a French court would force Google to proactively prevent indexing of particular images that were the subject of a prior 'breach of privacy' lawsuit, and this case has garnered a good deal of international interest given the possibility that imposing such a pre-publication ban on Google's indexing of the photographs could be viewed as imposing one country's privacy laws on the entirety of the Internet. Unlike other areas of law such as intellectual property where there are international treaties and global norms, there are widely divergent laws and views around the world dealing with Internet privacy issues. If the court decision is upheld on appeal, there may be a precedent in France for forcing search engines or other types of Internet service providers to take affirmation actions to disable certain online content even where a 'take down' request has not been filed with Internet service provider."
The Economist's online privacy debate
The Economist held an Oxford-style debate in August 2010 about Online Privacy with the motion "This house believes that governments must do far more to protect online privacy." I think the debate highlights a number of issues that decision makers should consider when crafting or updating such policies.
Defending the motion, Marc Rotenberg, President and Executive Director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, stated in his closing remarks, "It is only with the Internet that we have been told to rely on self-regulation, to allow companies that collect mountains of personal data to police themselves and ensure that our information is not misused. Talk about the fox guarding the henhouse!" Against the motion, Jim Harper, Director of Information Policy Studies at the CATO Institute, stated in his closing remarks, "There is no free lunch: regulation is costly, and it does not work well. Consumers' best source of protection is their own behavior. Learn how Internet communications work, withhold personal information more often and mete it out carefully when appropriate."
The final results of the 10-day debate showed 52% voting yes in agreement, and 48% voting no against the argument that governments must do far more to protect online privacy. The slim margin in agreement shows there is not overwhelming agreement on the issue of what should be done to mitigate uncertainties about online privacy. Moderator Martin Giles reiterated the closing arguments on both sides of the debate and concluded that "...policymakers and companies need to tread cautiously in this brave new online world...".
Indeed, governments and companies should be prepared to weigh in on the issue, as it is one not to be avoided.
Check out these resources for further reading and research about Internet privacy.
- Internet privacy Wiki (Wikipedia): A good overview of the risks, public views, laws and regulations, legal threats, and references.
- How Privacy Vanishes Online (The New York Times): Researchers gleaned names, ages, and even Social Security Numbers by using data from social network sites.
- Online trust and perceived utility for consumers of web privacy statements (WBS / Electronic Business, Mark Gazaleh)
- Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change: A Proposed Framework for Businesses and Policymakers (PDF) (Federal Trade Commission)
- Legal confusion on internet privacy - The clash of data civilizations (The Economist): Sharply differing attitudes toward privacy in Europe and America are a headache for the world's Internet giants.
- Privacy and the internet - Lives of others (The Economist): Facebook and Google face a backlash from users and regulators over how they handle sensitive data.
- Electronic Frontier Foundation: A consumer rights group that defends free speech, fair use, privacy, and transparency.
- Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights (PDF) (WhiteHouse.gov): A framework for protecting privacy and promoting innovation in the global digital economy.
- State Laws Related to Online Privacy (National Conference of State Legislatures): Several states provide their Internet or online privacy laws.
- Privacy Law (Small Business Administration): An article for small companies about the legal responsibilities of privacy.
- How Coders Should Make Apps More Privacy-Friendly (Business Week): An article on how applications can be made more privacy friendly using a "privacy by design" principle.
- Peering behind the shroud of online and social media privacy (TechRepublic): The privacy landscape online and on social media is being affected by more than governments, and even the idea of privacy rights on social media may be exaggerated.
- Why 'Nothing to Hide' misrepresents online privacy (TechRepublic): A legal research professor explains to Michael P. Kassner why we should think long and hard before subscribing to the "Nothing to Hide" defense of surveillance and data-gathering.
- Is metadata collected by the government a threat to your privacy? (TechRepublic): Seemingly unobtrusive digital bytes known as metadata have been vaulted
to the tech media limelight. What is metadata, and why all of a sudden
is it so interesting to so many?
Note: TechRepublic, Tech Pro Research, and CNET News are CBS Interactive properties.