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Wanted: New Tools To Tame the Wild West of the Internet

By Quentin Palfrey

President, International Digital Accountability Council

Read the original Medium Post here.

The digital revolution has transformed our lives and our economy. It has changed how we shop, socialize, eat, exercise, love, and learn. As we stay home during the coronavirus pandemic, our online lives have intensified. Work meetings, play dates, happy hours and birthday parties have been replaced with Zoom, Hangouts and Teams.

Instead of getting on the bus in the morning, many of our children log onto Google Classroom and Learn with Homer, followed by countless hours on Netflix and PBS Kids. We anxiously check Twitter and Facebook for news about COVID-19’s spread, then take a break to share silly videos on Snapchat or TikTok and ask Alexa what the weather will be like today.

© pixabay

This forced digital explosion is introducing vast new uncertainties. The intimate personal details of our lives, families, and health conditions are harvested, bought, and sold in increasingly sophisticated ways by companies around the globe.

We receive apologetic alerts informing us that institutions with which we have shared sensitive, personal, and financial information have unwittingly shared our secrets with unscrupulous actors. We learn that the apps we have downloaded on our phones have been tracking our locations in alarming detail. We shudder to discover that unfamiliar companies have been covertly collecting information about our health, sleep, and even fertility. We worry about the information our children may be irrevocably revealing about themselves as they play Minecraft, Fortnite, and Clash of Clans. Cable news breathlessly covers stories of campaigns colluding with foreign governments to microtarget deceptive ads at U.S. citizens using dossiers of personal data collected via social media.

© Hillary Fox

When we download apps onto our phones, we hastily scroll down and click through the dense, jargon-filled privacy policies containing terms and conditions we barely understand. We realize that data — our data — is increasingly central to the business models of the companies that offer us products and services. And we accept that bargain, up to a point.

But it is hard to escape the uneasy feeling that the rules governing how we deal with each other on the Internet are broken and the institutions that are supposed to be protecting us from misuse of our data online are time and time again letting us down.

Over the past few months, the Future of Privacy Forum, a nonprofit which brings together industry, academics, advocates, and others to tackle the challenges of tech innovation and privacy protection, has been incubating a new effort called the International Digital Accountability Council. Led by an experienced team of international lawyers, technologists, and privacy experts, IDAC will convene stakeholders from industry, government, civil society, and academia to explore what other structures can be put in place to proactively identify and resolve risks and harms in the developer ecosystem and provide meaningful, accountability.

The Internet has grown increasingly complex and laws and regulations have struggled to keep up. We now have a patchwork of privacy rules that change depending where you live, with dramatically different laws in Europe than in the United States and different rules in California than in Kentucky. There is no baseline set of privacy protections on the Internet.

Seven years ago, I worked in the Obama administration when we proposed a consumer privacy bill of rights. Since then, the European Union has passed an ambitious framework called the General Data Protection Regulation and states across the U.S. — led by California — have put in place new consumer data privacy laws.

Recently, there has been emerging momentum around the need for national legislation. Before the coronavirus eclipsed all other policy priorities, the chances of federal privacy legislation in this Congress were the best they had been in decades. Now, meaningful action is less certain — even as the risks have vastly expanded.

Meanwhile, there has been a frenzy of law enforcement activity at the federal and state level. The Federal Trade Commission has settled cases for record-breaking amounts while state Attorneys General have actively held a number of companies accountable for unfair and deceptive trade practices laws. Regulators in Europe and around the world have actively conducted investigations into numerous allegations of data misuse.

While this work has been valuable and impactful, law enforcement alone is poorly equipped to keep up with data misuse on a global scale in an ecosystem as vast and complex as the software that powers our mobile devices and computers. Platforms like Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft host an enormous array of apps, plugins, and complex integrations with software created by tens of thousands of third party developers.

Part of the solution is to demand that platforms play a more active role in policing the third parties they contract with offering services through their app stores and integrations. But just as it is impossible for law enforcement to police the entire ecosystem, it is unrealistic to believe that the platforms alone can keep up with all that is happening on their own sites.

Solutions that aim to increase accountability online should take a broader view of oversight. Protecting privacy and other user rights in this complex digital environment demands that government, industry, academics, technical experts, and other stakeholders engage in a coordinated approach that prioritizes developer education, compliance, accountability, and oversight of data practices.

It is time for a coordinated effort between government, law enforcement and developers to create an Internet we can all trust, where the rules are clear and fair. Companies that play by the rules should be able to succeed online. Users should be able to trust that their data will be treated with respect. With the help of an independent, international watchdog like IDAC, governments and nonprofits can work together to make sure that everyone’s rights are protected online no matter where they live.

Quentin Palfrey is President of the International Digital Accountability Council, a Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and former Senior Advisor for Jobs & Competitiveness in the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy.