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NAAG Summit Highlights Critical Role of Attorneys General in Protecting Privacy Online

By NAAG President and Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler

We live in an age when sharing information about our lives with colleagues and friends is easier than ever. With a couple taps on our smartphones, we can upload a spreadsheet of contacts for our kids’ lacrosse team to Google Docs, post photos of the team’s latest game on Facebook or Instagram, and let friends know where we’re celebrating a recent win by checking in on FourSquare. Mobile and cloud technologies are giving us great tools to share our information with each other – usually for free – but in our desire to communicate, we often don’t think about what happens to the information we provide. How is it protected? How is it used? Who else is it shared with? And how does this sharing affect our privacy?

The focus of my NAAG presidency has been to help consumers get answers to these questions, and to help businesses ensure that consumers have the tools they need to sufficiently protect their privacy while online and interconnected. That’s why, on April 14-16, I convened a Presidential Initiative Summit in National Harbor, Md., on “Privacy in the Digital Age.” We brought together 23 attorneys general and hundreds of regulators and consumer and industry advocates to tackle tough questions and explore what state and territorial attorneys general can do to further protect privacy.

To kick off the Summit, I invited fellow attorneys general to sit down with Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg to discuss ways we can work together to educate consumers about their privacy options on that popular service. We then partnered with Facebook to launch a “How to Control Your Information” public awareness campaign that included a public service announcement (PSA) for parents, teenagers and other digital consumers. Twenty attorneys general recorded PSAs to date and our message of privacy protection is getting out (www.facebook.com/fbsafety).

At the Summit, we heard from experts who commended state attorneys general for leading the way on privacy protection and called on states to continue to be innovators and effective enforcers. One such expert was Julia Angwin, journalist for the Wall Street Journal’s award-winning “What They Know” series on online data collection, who urged attorneys general to push for greater data access rights, including correction and deletion rights. This would let consumers know what is being collected about them by specific websites and mobile apps, and provide some ability for consumers to ensure that, at the very least, what is being collected is accurate.

The attorneys general also heard from industry leaders who are developing privacy-enhancing tools for users, from self-regulatory codes to software. Many of them acknowledged that more needs to be done to ensure that consumers know what information is being collected about them and to give them meaningful choices in that collection. Brad Smith, general counsel and executive vice president for Microsoft, put it well when he said, “You cannot have healthy self-regulation without healthy regulation as well.”

Avenues for regulation were hotly debated at the Summit, with consumer advocates calling for more state regulation and business advocates calling for less. Enforcement approaches were another much-discussed topic. All sides agreed that strong enforcement against Internet pirates and other bad apples is necessary, and that attorneys general have a vital role to play. David Vladeck, former director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), noted that the FTC does not have unlimited resources, so he encouraged state attorneys general to continue to be active in enforcing privacy protections under both state and federal laws, including the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) and the Child Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA).

To see these discussions and debates in-depth, view the video on the NAAG website: http://www.naag.org/summit-videos.php

Steps AGs Have Already Taken

The Presidential Initiative Summit succeeded in highlighting the many ways in which privacy issues permeate our commerce and our personal lives, underscoring the need for state attorney general vigilance.

Even before the Summit, though, my colleagues and I have been exercising tremendous vigilance. Since the beginning of my NAAG presidency, we attorneys general have shined a light on problematic data collection practices at major Internet companies, brought dozens of enforcement actions – many of which are ongoing – and pressed for better industry standards among app developers, mobile platform providers and others. We have also redoubled our efforts to stay on the leading edge of privacy issues by creating new privacy units within our offices, hiring technology experts and enhancing communication and collaboration across AG offices to better address online privacy threats. I’m so proud of all the work being done by attorneys general across the country to meet the challenges of privacy in the Digital Age.

Fundamentally, I know that these challenges cannot be fully addressed within the one year of my presidency. These challenges will be with us for years to come, and will change as privacy-impacting technologies – and our own understandings of what “privacy” means – evolve. States are the laboratories for democracy, though, and so as innovation breeds new risks to our consumers and responsible businesses, we as state and territorial attorneys general should innovate, too, and find new and creative ways to keep our consumers safe and our businesses thriving.

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Attorneys General at the Summit with Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook