In an Age of Digital Identity, FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz Calls for Privacy by Design

Published on May 31, 2012
by Mike Isaac

Jon Leibowitz is no newcomer to Washington. He has been at the Federal Trade Commission since 2004, dealing with antitrust issues at a national level.

But his job looks much different today than it did eight years ago. Facebook and Google have grown into juggernauts of the Internet — Facebook holds your years of status updates, location data and photos; Google has your trove of Google account data, including years of search queries. They’re two of a few Silicon Valley giants who have singularly formed the concept of identity in the digital age. And it’s Leibowitz’s job to make sure these big boys are playing by the rules.

Leibowitz discussed a few of his organization’s stances on privacy, market competition and other topics in conversation with Walt Mossberg at our D: All Things Digital conference on Thursday.

There’s the good news: Leibowitz says that inside the Beltway, issues surrounding privacy aren’t divided between the red and the blue. “The FTC is about as bipartisan as you can get,” he said. “It happens to be a small oasis of bipartisanship in Washington.”

And, for the most part, the FTC under Leibowitz has made it clear at a high level what privacy norms it expects from Internet companies: Transparency, easily digestable privacy statements and general product design that takes privacy into account from the get-go.

Take EULAs and privacy policies, for instance. They’ve got to get better, less bogged down with pages upon pages of legalese, and more pointed in their stance. “They should be sort of like a nutrition guide on the side of a cereal box at the supermarket,” Leibowitz said.

There’s also privacy by design, which includes a better, more upfront position from companies on “do not track” — the feature that allows users to opt out of allowing companies to track their information across Web sites. As the FTC called for this feature in a recent report, and more online movements from organizations like the Electronic Freedom Foundation support the notion, it is gaining some traction — Microsoft, Mozilla and Google have all reconfigured their browsers to support the DNT header. And companies like Twitter are trumpeting their own participation in the DNT initiatives.

Leibowitz argues that this isn’t something that the private sector should be worried about — it may even strengthen the online economy. “The more protection these consumers have, the more they trust it, and the more commerce they do,” Leibowitz said.

But there’s a rub for these Internet companies: “There’s a feeling of ‘I want to do the right thing but don’t want to be at a competitive disadvantage,'” Leibowitz said.

Leibowitz also touched on the other half of his job — policing the Valley giants on anticompetitive actions — though he danced around some of the more sensitive, timely issues. The FTC’s ongoing investigation of Google was an untouchable topic, as the agency is in a quiet period. But, as an audience member noted, the FTC’s recent high-profile hire of star litigator Beth Wilkinson could signal impending legal action against Google.

“It just means that we have very competent counsel that can go toe to toe with their very competent counsel,” Leibowitz said.

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