Taking Data Privacy Day Beyond SSNs

Today is Data Privacy Day, but instead of reading about privacy violations and pledges to make good by various corporations, pick a Congressman (or woman) and explain to them that when it comes to protecting our privacy online, our laws need a rewrite. Tell him (or her) the issues go far beyond identity theft using social security numbers.

The web is controlled by private entities, from the pipes (Verizon (s VZ), Comcast, (s CMCSA) AT&T (s T)) to the portals (Google, (s GOOG) Yahoo (s YHOO) and Microsoft (s MSFT)). These companies have a financial interest, and one might argue a fiduciary duty, to make as much money as possible from helping people get online and find content. Right now, most money made online comes from selling access to the pipes, services on top of those pipes (think cable television) and from advertising.

For privacy advocates, the issue is that the companies that truly depend on the web for revenue need to keep growing that revenue, and they think the best way to do that is to offer advertisers better information about you and eventually, premium access to you. It’s not just advertising; other entities want to know more, too, and the latest technologies offers a way to do it.

Don’t be fooled by the pseudo-debates over privacy that pit the ISPs and their packet-sniffing against the portals with their data retention policies. It goes beyond web surfing when one considers how much of our personal data we place in the “cloud,” from online file storage to services such as Flickr.

So Congress should start by legislating that pipe owners need to disclose how they track and offer ads to subscribers, AND they need to offer a private access line that consumers can choose if they don’t want their surfing tracked by their ISP. For the portal owners, Congress needs to legislate what data can be kept, how it can be shared and for how long it can stay in hard drives. When data goes astray, consumers should be notified and companies should face financial penalties for their part in the data leak.

But more than anything consumers have to be aware that our attention is valuable. We need to treat it as such and get laws on the books that reflect that value — from harsher penalties for data leaks to an ability to opt out of certain schemes. Even knowledge of those schemes would be helpful. Yes, we get a lot of free content online thanks to advertising, but we also have no say — and no clue —  as to how much of our data we give up to watch cats on a treadmill.