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Senate Hearing: Consumer Online Privacy and Project Dragonfly

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“We understand that the foundation of our business is trust.”

That’s according to Keith Enright, Google’s Chief Privacy Officer, in a testimony of Google’s continual commitment to ensuring the security of consumer’s personal information.

It came at the Senate hearing on federal privacy legislation. The phrase refers to the apparent need for updated and informed legislation regarding the online privacy of consumers. The panel of tech giants, including Google, Amazon, Twitter, AT&T, Apple and Charter Communications, faced a host of questions from the Senate Committee aimed at achieving some form of cooperation from each business in terms of user privacy.

The hearing was long overdue considering the significant gap between technological development and corresponding legislation. It’s also amid growing public concern over how tech companies are handling sensitive information. It could initiate what many are calling a new era in online government action.

It’s a topic our client, Blue Fountain Media, has been examining for the past year in an effort to help their clients become more compliant and sensitive to consumer issues on privacy.

A recent study conducted by the digital marketing agency found that 90% of consumers surveyed are very concerned about their internet privacy.

This data runs contrary to a remark made by Andrew Devore, the Vice President of Amazon, stating that customers trust the online retailer with their personal info. (the BFM survey found that only 18% of consumers trust online retailers).

Americans have become increasingly wary of tech companies, particularly when it comes to their children’s online activity. Some concerns dealt with how Apple interacts and shares with 3rd party app developers. Guy Tribble, Apple’s Vice President of Software Technology reassured the committee that all 3rd parties are required to request access to consumer information. Generally, all who testified agreed that some sort of Unified Federal Consumer Privacy Law is necessary. All concede consumer privacy has always been a company core value, even if they have fallen short or made a past mistake.

One of the significant obstacles that the committee faces is how to precisely define private information. Search engines like Google or Amazon quite literally run off consumer data. The collection and application of those figures are critical for search expediency and optimization. These concerns were voiced by several panelists, echoing the long-time objection of government regulations, that it ultimately hurts the customers and the economy.

Google’s Chief Privacy Officer described private information as “personally identifiable.” Meaning anything that can lead directly back to the consumer could rightfully be considered private.

Of course, such legislation would not be the first of its kind. Previously enacted bills include California’s recently passed AB 375, or the California Consumer Privacy Act, which is often compared to a similar regulation passed in the European Union called the General Data Protection Regulation. As previously mentioned, these laws are vague and hard to enforce.  Not to mention the complications involved in trying to hold an international corporation to the standards of a single state.

After a series of questions and what some say were rehearsed responses, Texas Senator Ted Cruz delivered some hard-hitting accusations framed as questions directed towards Google in particular. His main concern was Google’s involvement in a secret operation named Project Dragonfly. Its alleged objective is to develop a search engine for the government of China specifically designed to enable easy and broadly applicable censorship. Google’s representative would not deny the allegations, nor would he confirm. He simply stated that, as Google’s Chief Privacy Officer, such inquiries were out of his domain.

Whether or not the protection of personal data and what tech reps call “the preservation of the right to innovate” can co-exist still remains to be seen. But at least the discussion has begun.