A skeptical welcome for online privacy forum

24 Nov A skeptical welcome for online privacy forum

Ars Technica, By Julian Sanchez, November 23, 2008
The alphabet soup of Washington think tanks and advocacy groups devoted to privacy just increased by one: the Future of Privacy Forum, which launched Wednesday at a National Press Club event. The virtual think tank hopes to move “beyond the opt-in/opt-out debate” by drawing on industry expertise when proposing smarter privacy practices—but its industry ties have raised a few skeptical eyebrows, as well. The Forum will be headed by Jules Polonetsky, formerly Chief Privacy Officer at AOL, and Christopher Wolf, an attorney at Proskauer Rose. These co-chairs were joined at the launch event byPamela Jones Harbour of the Federal Trade Commission and Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology.  Wolf began by observing that further “government engagement” with novel business uses of data—stemming from the growth of social networking sites, cloud computing, and Web 2.0 applications—now appears inevitable. The Forum would seek to develop rules of the road that enabled happy coexistence of “privacy, profits, and personalization.” The right sort of privacy policy, Polonetsky elaborated, would enable “data use to be obvious, to be intuitive, to be used for benefits that people value and that they control.”  That would mean not only finding ways to make data use transparent to users with wildly varying levels of technical sophistication, but also developing “baseline practices about what’s anonymous and what’s not.”  As recent studies have made clear, even theoretically “anonymized” data can often be aggregated to identify particular users—which means that “anonymity” is as much a function of the available data environment as it is an intrinsic feature of information. Alluding to the detailed questionnaires prospective members of the incoming Obama administration have been asked to fill out—including queries about potentially embarassing e-mails or online posts—Polonetsky asked “do we want the next generation to live in a perpetual state of self-censorship?”