Increasing Transparency, Improving Control and Expanding Choice for Consumers – Companies Can Do This and Continue to Innovate!

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With Congress returned from the August recess, the technology community and consumers nationwide continue to await action on data privacy – namely, legislation that will strengthen and harmonize data privacy protections while promoting continued U.S. leadership in innovation.

In the meantime, tech companies are continuing their efforts to improve data privacy. Since April, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft have launched new tools and policies designed to address individual user privacy by increasing transparency, improving control, and expanding choice. We at the Software & Information Industry Association (SIIA) believe that these are the right moves for these companies, their users, and customers. Moreover, these tools and policies illustrate what meaningful compliance with federal transparency and control requirements could look like. 

Microsoft Tailors Privacy Depending on the Product in Question

First out of the gate was Microsoft, which announced in April it would increase transparency and control over data by disclosing whether data collection is required or optional for the relevant product or service to work, improving product documentation to increase transparency about data collection, and publishing a biannual report disclosing changes to the company’s data collection practices. Notably, the collection of data in the optional category, which is for data not essential to the product or service experience, will be just that – optional based on the individual customer’s choice.

Google Offers Tools to Expand Consumer Choice

In May, Google launched new tools to improve cookie controls on its Chrome browser and disclose the identity of the actors involved in ad placement (including the publisher, ad tech intermediaries, and companies putting ad trackers in the ad). The improved cookie control tool is particularly interesting because it allows individuals to control cookies in the third-party context, while retaining their benefits in the first-party context. This means that users can control their ad preferences by blocking or clearing relevant cookies, while keeping others that allow them to easily log-in to their frequently visited websites. Following this, Google Chrome announced Privacy Sandbox, an initiative dedicated to developing open standards to enhance privacy, including transparency, choice, and control, while ensuring that free online content remains accessible.

Facebook Enables Consumers to Control Off-Facebook Activity

On August 20, Facebook announced the gradual launch of Off-Facebook Activity, a new transparency tool that allows users to view and control the activity data that apps and websites share with Facebook for targeted advertising. In practice, this means that when a person clears their non-Facebook activity data, Facebook will disconnect this information from their account and not use it to send targeted advertisements to the person on any of its platforms. Facebook plans to roll this out everywhere in the next few months, but for now, it is available to people in Ireland, South Korea, and Spain.

No doubt there is more work to be done, including through legislation that sets the ceiling standard for transparency and control. Yet, these industry efforts are significant steps forward. Notably, these new privacy commitments are designed by firms to provide greater transparency and make control over personal data easier for individual users. This willingness to operationalize transparency and control, thus, recognizes that facilitating privacy and a profitable business model are not incompatible. Sensible legislation that incentivizes more initiatives like these will empower consumers while allowing for data-driven innovation can work. 

Sara Sara DePaul is SIIA’s Senior Director for Technology Policy and Enforcement.