Have We Reached The Tipping Point On Online Privacy?

Over the weekend The Los Angeles Times published a new poll suggesting that we may have reached the tipping point on online privacy, finally forcing policymakers to take notice and react to ease people’s concerns.

The USC Dornsife/Times poll found a stunning 82 percent of Californians say they are very or somewhat concerned about “companies collecting your personal information when you visit their websites or use their services.”

The new poll confirms a Consumer Watchdog’s poll findings nearly two years ago when we were battling to raise privacy issues as a priority that 84 percent of Americans favor preventing online companies from tracking personal information or web searches without your explicit approval. Ninety percent supported more laws to protect privacy.

The most damning aspect of the USC Dornsife/Times poll is the lack of trust shown in some of the tech world’s biggest brands.  Respondents  were asked to rate six on whether they trusted the companies to be responsible with personal information, with 0 meaning no trust and 10 meaning complete trust.

In a clear blow to the tech giants, none scored above 5.  Apple was highest with a score of 4.6, followed by Google at 3.8, LinkedIn at 3.0, YouTube (owned by Google) at 2.8.  Facebook was 2.7, just ahead of last place Twitter, 2.4.

Those are not numbers that any company who relies on consumers can possibly be pleased with, no matter how you spin it.  As Linda DiVall, president of American Viewpoint, the firm conducting the poll, told the Times:

“I thought the ratings were strikingly low. If I were involved with the branding image of those companies, I would be very concerned.”

That may be a reason industry is scrambling to appear more privacy friendly. A number of key players are participating in the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) effort to set a standard for a Do Not Track mechanism and what the obligations would be for a site to be compliant if it receives a DNT message.  Yahoo! last week said it will honor the standard and Google has finally agreed to offer the DNT option its browser, Chrome.  Firefox, Safari and Internet Explorer already give users the option; the problem is that websites are under no obligation to honor the message.

But, as I said, I think we may have reached a tipping point on privacy.  In February the White House offered its privacy proposal, calling for a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.  Last week the Federal Trade Commission released its privacy report and strongly endorsed Do Not Track.

Conservative Rep. Joe Barton, (R-TX) told the Times that the poll “reaffirms my opinion that privacy is a big deal – and it’s becoming a bigger deal.” He is partnering with liberal Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) in sponsoring privacy legislation.

Silicon Valley’s premier companies have earned our distrust by continually playing fast and loose with our information. Google unilaterally changed its privacy policy and announced it will combine data across all its services.  It was then caught deliberately circumventing the Safari browser’s privacy settings. The point is that we’ve reached a tipping point, precisely because the companies have continued to invade our privacy.

We need to continue pushing back and demanding action from policymakers until we finally have regained control of our information. FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz got it right when he said nobody has the right to put something on your computer without your permission. Now we need to make sure the Administration, Congress and the FTC enact laws and regulations to protect our privacy. If they don’t, in California at least, there is another option: a ballot initiative in 2014.