Please Don’t Take My Privacy (Why Would Anybody Really Want It?)

Legal issues with privacy in social media stem from the nature of social media – an inherently communicative and open medium. A cliché is that in social media there is no expectation of privacy because the very idea of privacy is inconsistent with a “social” medium. Scott McNealy from Sun Microsystems reportedly made this point with his famous aphorism of “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.”

But in evidence law, there’s a rule barring assumption of facts not in evidence. In social media, by analogy: Where was it proven that we cannot find privacy in a new communications medium, even one as public as the internet and social media?

Let’s go back to basic principles. Everyone talks about how privacy has to “adapt” to a new technological paradigm. I agree that technology and custom require adaptation by a legal system steeped in common law principles with foundations from the 13th century. But I do not agree that the legal system isn’t up to the task.

All you really need to do is take a wider look at the law.

Privacy writers talk about the law of appropriation in privacy. The law of appropriation varies from state to state, though it is a fairly established aspect of privacy law. Continue reading

Privacy: Consent to Collecting Personal Information

Gonzalo Mon writes in Mashable that “Although various bills pending in Congress would require companies to get consent before collecting certain types of information, outside of COPPA, getting consent is not a uniformly applicable legal requirement yet. Nevertheless, there are some types of information (such as location-based data) for which getting consent may be a good idea.  Moreover, it may be advisable to get consent at the point of collection when sensitive personal data is in play.”

First, what current requirements – laws, agency regulations and quasi-laws – require obtaining consent, even if not “uniformly applicable”?

1. Government Enforcement.  The Federal Trade Commission’s November 2011 consent decree with Facebook user express consent to sharing of nonpublic user information that “materially exceeds” user’s privacy settings.  The FTC was acting under its authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act against an “unfair and deceptive trade practice”, an authority the FTC has liberally used in enforcement actions involving not just claimed breaches of privacy policies but also data security cases involving managing of personal data without providing adequate security.

2. User Expectations Established by Actual Practice.  The mobile space offers some of the most progressive (and aggressive) examples of privacy rights seemingly established by practice rather than stated policy.  For example, on the PrivacyChoice blog, the CEO of PlaceIQ explained that “Apple and Android have already established user expectations about [obtaining] consent.  Location-based services in the operating system provide very precise location information, but only through a user-consent framework built-in to the OS.  This creates a baseline user expectation about consent for precise location targeting.”  (emphasis added) Continue reading

Privacy For Businesses: Any Actual Legal Obligations?

For businesses, is there an obligation in the United States to do anything more than simply have a privacy policy?  The answer is not much of an obligation at all.

Put another way, is it simply a question of disclosure – so long as a business tells users what it intends to do with their personal information, can the business pretty much do anything it wants with personal information?  This would be the privacy law equivalent of the “as long as I signal, I am allowed to cut anyone off” theory of driving.

Much high-profile enforcement (via the Federal Trade Commission and State Attorneys General) has definitely focused on breaches by businesses of their own privacy statements.  Plus, state laws in California and elsewhere either require that companies have privacy policies or require what types of disclosures must be in those policies, but again focus on disclosure rather than mandating specific substantive actions that businesses must or must not take when using personal information.

As The Economist recently noted in its Schumpeter blog, “Europeans have long relied on governments to set policies to protect their privacy on the internet.  America has taken a different tack, shunning detailed prescriptions for how companies should handle people’s data online and letting industries regulate themselves.”   This structural (or lack of structural) approach to privacy regulation in the United States can also been seen – vividly – in legal and business commentary that met Google’s recent privacy overhaul.  Despite howls of displeasure and the concerted voices of dozens of State Attorneys General, none of the complaints relied on any particular violations of law.  Rather, arguments (by the AGs) are made about consumer expectations in advance of consumer advocacy, as in “[C]onsumers may be comfortable with Google knowing their search queries but not with it knowing their whereabouts, yet the new privacy policy appears to give them no choice in the matter, further invading their privacy.”

Again, there’s little reliance on codified law because, for better or worse, there is no relevant codified law to rely upon.  Google, Twitter and Facebook have been famously the subjects of enforcement actions by the states and the Federal Trade Commission, and accordingly Google has been careful in its privacy rollout to provide extensive advance disclosures of its intentions.

As The Economist also reported, industry trade groups have stepped in with self-regulatory “best practices” for online advertising, search and data collection, as well as “do not track” initiatives including browser tools, while the Obama Administration last month announced a privacy “bill of rights” that it hopes to move in the current or, more realistically, a future Congress.

This also should not ignore common law rights of privacy invasion, such as the type of criminal charges successfully brought in New Jersey against the Rutgers student spying on his roommate.   These rights are not new and for the time being remain the main source of consumer recourse for privacy violations in the absence of meaningful contract remedies (for breaches of privacy policies) and legislative remedies targeted to online transactions.

More to come on this topic shortly.