White House Focuses on Privacy, My Interest Wanes

I promised back in January to summarize the FTC report on privacy when it came out. Today was the big announcement but it’s getting so much press coverage that I’ll leave the dissection to others. Here is some of the coverage (pick your favorite political slant):

However I will say that this is getting much more attention then I had anticipated. Mostly because the White House decided to take the report and wrap it up into a call for a “Privacy Bill of Rights” and I’m encouraged to see the White House use it’s bully pulpit to forward this issue. Of course, while the attention is great, the devil will be in the details of the proposed legislation that will surely follow in the coming months.

With that out of the way, if you’ve been following my posts over the past weeks you know I’ve been harping on the importance of startups to pay close attention to privacy laws, regulations and practices and today only adds fuel to that fire. However, despite the 1,628 results in Google News on the FTC report, my “shout it from the mountain tops” energy level on the issue is waning. I’m starting to think the urgency of my message might be off the mark, or at least too early.

While I still see benefit for startups to be transparent about what they do with personal data as a means to build trust among users, I hear sensible opposing viewpoints coming from outside of my little “privacy bubble.” To follow are a couple of quotes that I think probably represent the norm. First here is a person’s reaction to a story on Google’s privacy policy change:

When somebody’s life is horribly dismembered as a result of Google’s insane privacy policy (new or old), please let me know. I’ll start thinking about privacy and necessary safety measures at that point.

Until then, please stop whining about privacy, because frankly, I just don’t see how any of this really matters. My life has yet to be negatively impacted by Google and I don’t foresee it happening in the near future.

And then there was this quote from someone who was much more concerned about the legal liability of having a poorly worded policy then how it would appear to his users if it wasn’t there at all.

For a very early stage startup caring about privacy does not immediately translate to displaying a privacy policy.

For us it was a day 1 decision: we will not do anything remotely creepy with your data. We will guard what you give us carefully and collect only what we need to operate our service. This is a fundamental and important part of our ethos.

Still, it took us more than 6 months to get an externally visible privacy policy in place, because lawyers are expensive and not displaying a policy did not kill us.

These arguments, while decidedly contra my startup-privacy thesis, seem to ring true. So I guess the question is how important is privacy to the general public? The answer might just be that they don’t care, yet.

I hope this post doesn’t come across as a manic 180 degree turn-around from last week – I still think privacy is an important issue to consider! However, I do feel a lessened urgency to address it. I swear by the time I’ve sorted it all out in my head I’m going to have enough material to write a book. I guess at the end of the day the real test would be interest in such a book.


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