Privacy debacles don

Recent incidents concerning the privacy of consumer data on the Web needn’t spark the heavy-handed approach that some governments want to take, according to research firm Ovum.

Given Web data privacy debacles involving Google Buzz and Facebook, regulators already have a “lock-on” to this topic, causing concern for a number of stakeholders in the industry, especially Internet companies like Google Inc., said Mark Little, principal analyst with Ovum, based in the U.K.

“The bandwagon has started. I don’t think it’s going to stop,” said Little.

The launch of Google Buzz, a social networking site, in February 2010, caused outrage among privacy experts who said the company turned a private e-mail service into a public social networking platform without adequate notification to users.Nominate someone you work with for a ComputerWorld Canada IT Leadership Award 
Shortly thereafter, 10 government privacy authorities, including Canada’s, accused the Mountain View, Calif.-based Internet company of failing to consider privacy in its applications and services. “This can’t go on the way it (has),” said Canadian Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart said in a press conference last April. “New products are being launched in untested form and (Google) is doing tests on the live marketplace with real people.”
Facebook, too, had its share of criticism from privacy experts who said the social networking site did not allow users to decide with whom they wanted to share content. In response, Facebook introduced several user privacy settings last May.

Little said there are several routes that can be taken to address this issue. One the one hand, things can be left as they are so users can choose to opt out of choosing whether to share personal data.

Or, the other option is to take the very extreme approach by some governments to immediately enforce privacy regulations to “force a lot of Internet players to actually design their business models around consumers opting in rather than opting out of sharing their personal data,” said Little.

But Ovum believes that a more “subtle middle way” must be taken before regulators can really assess what to enforce. The approach must be a well-crafted, nuanced regulation that first starts with allowing users transparency as to what happens to their data on the Web.

Little suggest a real-time dashboard that provides visibility into where personal information is going as users surf the Web. “That would be a more sensible way forward,” he said.

Once users feel empowered that they can manage and protect their own personal data, heavy-handed regulation won’t even be necessary, said Little.

But Google’s handling of this situation isn’t without fault either. Little said that while Google is correct in fearing that heavy-handed regulation will result in a dysfunctional Internet, the company is using extreme examples to make its point.

Google contends that users will be bombarded by a swarm of cookies that they will need to set with every Web site they enter. “They are really using that kind of angle in order to throw the baby out with the bathwater,” said Little.

He now foresees a drawn-out process with public consultations in major political regions, particularly North America and Europe.

But Little warns that if there are more privacy debacles that occur in the meantime, heavy-handed regulation will come swiftly. “I’m afraid the government will take action much more quickly and it could a much more unsubtle approach,” said Little.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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