THE ISSUE: When you use your computer or mobile device, companies can collect personal information, track websites you've visited, and sell the data to marketers and advertisers. Privacy policies are voluntary, not a matter of federal law.
Should Congress enact a national policy to protect online privacy?
Pia Lopez Yes, privacy matters
Unless you use cash only (not credit cards), shop in brick-and-mortar stores (not online) and interact with friends and family in person (not by mobile device or computer), tech companies collect your personal data and track your online habits.
Federal law has some privacy protections for children under 13, but few restrictions on companies collecting, keeping and sharing personal information on those who are older. That should change.
We ought to stand by the constitutional right of the people to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures from the private sector as well as from the government.
Congress should pass an online privacy law that requires companies to:
1. Reveal who is collecting data, why they are collecting it and how such data will be used.
2. Obtain affirmative expressed consent before collecting or retaining more data than needed for the requested service or transaction. For example, if an app provides weather information, it should not be collecting your list of contacts, call logs, your location and more from your mobile device without your permission.
3. Offer a "do not track" option, allowing consumers to opt out of having their online behavior tracked and receiving targeted advertising.
Congress should require stiff penalties enforced by the Federal Trade Commission for companies that fail to heed these simple protections.
Some web browsers voluntarily allow consumers to declare a do-not-track preference to websites, but online companies have no legal obligation to honor this request. It is time to fix that.
We also get piecemeal settlements, like California's with Amazon.com, Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft and Research in Motion, announced Wednesday. These firms will post policies saying what personal information they plan to access and how it will be used. App developers that do not abide by their own policies then can face prosecution under state law for deceptive practices or false advertising.
But this is no substitute for a national policy.
Europe has greater privacy protections and is poised to go further, proposing rules that would give consumers the right to request that information they posted on sites such as Facebook and Google be deleted (the "right to be forgotten").
Data used for journalistic, artistic or literary purposes would be exempt. But many worry that search engines would be pressured to delete items individuals find embarrassing from the public record. In the United States, of course, such items would be protected under the First Amendment, unless libelous or slanderous.
Anyway, these are issues we should continue to grapple with, not dismiss like Sun Microsystems chief executive Scott McNealy did in 1999: "You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."
Privacy still matters. Get with it.
Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.
Ben Boychuk No, privacy is dead
Privacy is dead, alas. Its demise perhaps a decade ago, maybe well before then is regrettable. But it's entirely our fault.
Privacy was mortally wounded the first time some poor slob agreed to write his Social Security number on a loan application. By the time millions of Americans flocked to the Internet to join America Online and Facebook and to search Google, privacy was as good as dead.
If one believes in miracles, then putting faith in Congress to resurrect privacy in some meaningful way is understandable. And just because privacy is dead doesn't mean we can't have a "do not track" rule, if it makes people feel better.
Do bear in mind, however, that the federal government will continue to trample Americans' privacy in every conceivable way for most any reason, such as "homeland security" and "reforming health care." And there is practically nothing you can do about it.
I say "practically nothing" but, in fairness, those rabid right-wingers on the U.S. Supreme Court lately have taken a more expansive view of the Fourth Amendment, at least as it pertains to some forms of electronic surveillance.
Until a few weeks ago, the feds could sneak onto your property, attach a GPS device to your car and track every move you made.
A unanimous high court last month tossed a decision by the liberal and often-overruled 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that such surreptitious surveillance was in full accord with the Bill of Rights.
But the justices noted that their decision does not preclude the government from availing itself of information about you from video surveillance, electronic toll collection systems, cellphone towers, and, of course, all of those online merchants Pia and so many others worry about.
Rest assured, the federal government has a raft of rules that guarantee your data is in good hands. According to a Scripps Howard investigative report, the Social Security Administration only loses track of about 14,000 live Social Security numbers each year.
That's nothing compared to the mishap at the Department of Veterans Affairs a few years ago, when burglars stole a laptop containing the personal information of more than 26 million veterans from an employee's home.
A company's ability to track your Web browsing habits in order to tailor advertising to your particular tastes can open the door to mischief, certainly. As long as such information exists in human hands, it's vulnerable.
But Facebook and Google can't abuse your privacy and arrest and imprison you. Only the government can do that.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's "City Journal." (www.city-journal.org/california)