A number of heavy weights in the online space have joined forces to form The Internet Association, a new lobbying group that aims to protect the freedom of the internet and the rights of internet users. But when you look at its membership, and read its policy, it’s pretty clear that protecting online privacy won’t be on their agenda.
No mention of the ‘P’ word
Having formally launched on Wednesday, The Internet Association wasted no time announcing its values and objectives. Here’s a quote from their press release:
“The Internet Association’s policy platform is based on three planks: protecting Internet freedom; fostering innovation and economic growth; and empowering users.The Internet Association and its member companies engage in direct advocacy, educating policymakers on the profound positive impacts of the Internet and Internet companies on jobs, economic growth, freedom, creativity, commerce, productivity, education, prosperity and the global economy.”
All very valiant goals, but did you notice the glaring omission in that list of online sacred cows? Yep, the word “privacy” is conspicously absent. It’s strange, because the idea of “empowering users” and promoting “freedom” surely necessitates a measure of privacy…. Indeed, wasn’t the concept of protecting privacy a significant element of the SOPA and ACTA protests (arguably the biggest internet-related protests in history)? I also checked The Internet Association’s website I couldn’t find a single mention of the word “privacy”. Just more ambigous talk of “Internet freedom”:
“The Internet Association supports policies that protect and promote Internet freedom – information should flow freely across national borders, uninhibited by tariffs, regulations and government censorship that are fundamentally inconsistent with the transnational, free and decentralized nature of the Internet. To preserve the Internet’s role as a conduit for free expression, Internet intermediaries must not be held liable for the speech and activity of Internet users.”
But it’s not hard to see why The Internet Association is so reluctant to utter the ‘P word’, as many of its members have been accused, and in some cases convicted, of privacy violations. The full membership so far includes: Amazon.com, AOL, eBay, Expedia, Facebook, Google, IAC, LinkedIn, Monster Worldwide, Rackspace, salesforce.com, TripAdvisor, Yahoo!, and Zynga . Let’s take a closer look at some of their track records.
Google: Do I really need to tell you Google’s attitude toward online privacy? This is the company whose former CEO said those concerned about online privacy must have something to hide! We summarised Google’s privacy violations in a previous blog post, back when the search giant suffered the highest fine ever dished out by the FTC, for breaking its own privacy-related promises.
Yahoo!: Yahoo! may be committed protect people from government censorship now, but where were its values when it handed over the personal details of democracy activist Shi Tao to the Chinese government? Tao is currently serving 10 years in prison. Yahoo!’s Hong Kong arm also played a role in the jailing of activists Li Zhi, Jiang Lijun and Wang Xiaoning. I doubt they’ll be getting any assistance from The Internet Association…
Amazon: Although Amazon’s privacy missteps haven’t attracted as much attention as Google or Facebook’s, it’s still – allegedly - been a naughty boy. Last March a class action lawsuit was filed against the online retailer, alleging that Amazon illegally circumvented cookie blockers on Internet Explorer and tracked users without consent. Users also allege that Amazon sold their data to third party advertisers without consent. Amazon tried to get the lawsuit dismissed in June, but was rejected by a federal judge.
Rackspace: The Internet Association has pledged to “preserve the internet’s role as a conduit for free expression” but back in 2004 Rackspace was involved in some very shady dealings with government agencies that saw them handing over servers belonging to the independent media group IndyMedia. The whole affair is shrouded in secrecy, with no agency taking responsibility for the seizure (the finger has been pointed at Italian, UK and US governments) and no explanation given by Rackspace. The company’s UK branch was investigated for possible breach of the UK Data Protection Act and Rackspace was roundly criticised for not doing more to protect its customers’ data. The EFF has a nice summary of the affair here.
I could mention the privacy lawsuits related Zynga and that colossal user data screw-up by AOL a few years back, but in the interest of brevity I’ll stop here. Of course, I still wish The Internet Association the best of luck - many of its goals are admirable - but judging by its members, online privacy is far from its concern and without a focus on privacy “Internet freedom” will be hard to achieve.