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Cover Your Bits, It’s Data Privacy Day!

In case you missed the announcement, today is Data Privacy Day, the once-a-year “international celebration of the dignity of the individual expressed through personal information.” While this annual event does not generate the same level of excitement among the masses as other esoteric holidays like International Talk Like A Pirate Day or Pi Day, its relative importance will likely eclipse these celebrations in the near future for the simple reason that the shear amount of personal data that has migrated to the digital world is reaching staggering proportions. Today people regularly share many types of sensitive personal information, including financial, health and location data, with individuals and businesses for a variety of purposes and for various reasons. Data Privacy Day is a good time to remind policymakers that this steady flow of data should not be treated as a leak that must be staunched, but as a wellspring of innovation that should be cultivated.

The ability to more easily store, manipulate and transmit data has been at the root of the IT transformation of the last few decades. While this steady flow of data into the digital ether has given some people cause for concern (some warranted, but much of it not), consumers have broadly benefited from the growing number of new products and services that use their data. From financial tools that allow users to manage their money, to personal health record systems that allow users to store and share vital medical data, to social networks that allow individuals to connect and share photos, the Internet would not be the vibrant ecosystem that it is today without all of this user data. Moreover, it has become apparent to individuals who look beyond the sensationalized journalism found in outlets like the Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series or CNN’s “End of Privacy” specials that the benefits to users of all of this technology greatly outweigh the risks.

Part of respecting user privacy is giving users control over their data and we have seen substantial progress in this field. Users today have more control over their personal information on the Internet through the use of new tools for managing privacy online. Take online advertising, for example. Every major web browser includes many features to allow users to manage their online privacy settings, such as the use of cookies and anonymous web browsing modes, and this is a continued source of innovation and differentiation among competing Web browsers. Recently, for example, Microsoft announced that an upcoming version of Internet Explorer would include a feature to restrict access to browser information (such as browser histories). In addition, Google released an extension to its Chrome browser to create a one-step, persistent opt-out solution for users who do not want to receive targeted advertising. And the Mozilla Foundation has announced that it is adding a “Do Not Track” header extension to the Firefox browser.

Web browser developers are not the only ones providing consumers more control over their data. Consumers can also download third-party Web browser plug-ins like AdBlock and NoScript which completely block online advertising. And Internet users can use new applications like Bynamite which provide individuals a third-party interface to the profiles maintained about users by online advertisers and allow users to change, delete or add to their list of interests for targeted online advertising (e.g. a user could specify that they are interested in receiving ads for the categories “politics” and “education” but not “cooking”).

Providing users a simple, intuitive interface to manage complex decisions is not an easy task. Yet as with any development, improvements come in response to consumer demand and through an iterative trial and error design process. Policymakers should recognize that they cannot simply write legislation mandating good user design, but rather should work collaboratively with industry to create an ecosystem that encourages innovation in this field. Industry is already making substantial advancements in this area. For example, online advertisers are developing industry best practices to provide consumers with transparency and choice when using sites with targeted advertising. The Digital Advertising Alliance, an industry coalition, has created a self-regulatory program for online behavioral advertising, a unique icon so consumers can identify interest-based ads, and an online tool to allow consumers to select their advertising preference for over 50 participating ad networks. Internet users increasingly have tools to ensure that online interactions occur on their own terms.

One of the greatest strengths of the Internet is its diversity, especially “the long tail.” We are moving from a world of one-size-fits-all to one of personalization. The same is true with privacy where there are diverse user needs, expectations and interests and policymakers should be wary of imposing a single vision of privacy on all users. Instead, policymakers should be encouraging choice and innovation.

So, please, enjoy data privacy day. Remember to change your passwords, check your Facebook privacy settings, and maybe add an extra layer to your tin foil hat.  But let’s also take some time to reflect on the benefits of data sharing and think about how we can continue to protect consumer privacy in the future while not cutting back on the important data sharing that we do today.

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