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Federal Communications Bar Association to tackle consumer online privacy issues

Consumers routinely click and post on various online platforms, often unaware that independent data brokers are likely tracking and collecting their data.

That information, experts say, can be used to create distorted online profiles of individuals based on their clicks. And those aggregated profiles can have real-world consequences, dictating which opportunities are shown to individuals online, such as job advertisements.

The Federal Communications Bar Association, or FCBA, will tackle this issue during the second session of its Online Platform Regulation Series on June 23. The event, titled "Online Platform Consumer and Privacy Issues," will focus on consumer privacy interests implicated by platform business models and whether consumers' privacy interests are sufficiently protected.

Oftentimes, consumers think that privacy issues are only a concern with social media companies, such as Facebook Inc., but the vast majority of websites that consumers visit are monetizing their information as a significant source of revenue, said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, who will be a featured speaker at the June 23 event.

Consumers can make it easy for brokers to collect their data because they often select the simplest privacy setting to get to information quickly, as opposed to taking several steps to hide that information, Givens said.

As consumers jump from site to site, they unknowingly leave a trail of breadcrumbs that allow data brokers to track their locations, unique IP addresses and shopping histories, which can be particularly revealing, especially for more personal items, Givens said.

Users' search histories can also reflect a lot about their political interests, beliefs and priorities.

"While one of those individual breadcrumbs may not be that meaningful, it's the trail that can be reassembled that tells a very unique story about you and your personal interests," Givens said. "That's what privacy advocates are concerned about — the inferences that can be made about people based on the aggregated analysis of their information across the web."

Data brokers collect information from an array of sources, ranging from public social media sites to newspaper websites. The latter is, by far, one of the largest collectors and sharers of personal information, Givens said, and shopping websites are another. The information can then be sold by data brokers to third parties for targeted advertising.

The issue has not gone unnoticed by both companies and lawmakers who have worked to shed light on the data broker industry. Google LLC, for example, announced in March that it would stop tracking users' browsing activities for ad targeting.

California passed comprehensive legislation in 2018 that gives consumers the right to opt-out of the sale of their information; Virginia's Consumer Data Protection Act, passed in March 2021, also provides consumers with the right to opt-out of having their information processed for targeted advertising purposes.

Vermont and California both require data brokers to register with their states, helping to bring the industry out from the shadows.

"They're not household names," Givens said. "It's an industry that is not very well known by the general public and rarely comes before Congress for oversight."

While several states are considering individual privacy laws, Givens said federal privacy legislation is needed to establish baseline protections.

"The companies agree that we need this protection just so that they can begin having some stabilization in what their expectations are," Givens said. "Consumers groups agree that we need it. There's a huge interest on Capitol Hill."


June 22 The Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Media and Broadband will convene a hearing titled "Building Resilient Networks" at 2:30 p.m. ET.
June 23 The Senate Subcommittee on Cyber will receive testimony on recent ransomware attacks at 2 p.m. ET.
June 24 The Federal Trade Commission will host a free online business workshop starting at 1 p.m. CT titled "Green Lights & Red Flags: FTC Rules of the Road for Business" that will feature insights on topics from how businesses can protect themselves from fraud to tips on responding to a cyberattack.
June 24 The Federal Communications Commission's advisory committee on diversity and digital empowerment will hold its virtual meeting at 10 a.m. ET.
June 25 The Federal Communications Commission will host a virtual webinar at 2 p.m. ET to provide information about the Emergency Connectivity Fund.

Industry, legal and think tank events

June 22 NetChoice will host an online event at 12 p.m. ET titled "American Antitrust: Reforms to Create Further Innovation and Opportunity." Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, will be the keynote speaker.
June 23 The FCBA will hold an event at 4 p.m. ET titled "Online Platform Consumer and Privacy Issues," which will focus on consumer interests that are implicated by the business model of online platforms.
June 24 The Information will hold an event at 9 a.m. PT titled "The Future of Engineering: How Tech is Fueling Growth."

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