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FTC chair Leibowitz: Apps need simpler privacy statements

Agency in charge of consumer protection and antitrust takes aim at social networks, dominant tech platforms.

FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz
Rafe Needleman/CNET

PALOS VERDES, Calif.--Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz, speaking at the D10 conference today, called on technology companies to implement three things to protect consumer privacy.

Acknowledging that tech vendors are doing better today at building privacy into apps, what he called, "privacy by design," he said that most companies actually want to design with consumer protection in mind.

But, he said, consumers need more transparency. He called for simpler policies for consumers. "They have to be like a nutrition guide on the side of a cereal box," he said. As a counter-example, he said that he recently saw a mobile privacy policy that required the user to click through 102 times to see the whole thing.

Finally, Leibowitz said that consumers need more choice and control over their data. "We think the notion of 'Do Not Track' for third-party cookies is critically important," he said.

Fortunately, he reminds us that modern browsers respect Do No Track headers. He thinks, though, that the options should be stricter, even though we are moving in the right direction.

He said policy is moving in the right direction. "Do Not Track for consumers will be a meaningful protection. We could have it by the end of the year."

Leibowitz pointed to a ruling on Facebook that has helped consumers. Now, when Facebook makes a privacy policy change, the company has to provide users and opt-in (not a pre-checked opt-out) before users can continue. Facebook also has to provide users with a copy of the data the social network has on them if they ask for it. Leibowitz reminded the audience that his agency is responsible for these changes.

But while we're making progress, the Web, for consumers, is still a bit too wild. "If we knew 15 years ago what we know now, maybe the architecture of the the Internet would be more opt-in generally."

With regards to child protections in particular, he said it's a complicated issue. But, "I don't think the obligations of COPA (the Child Online Protection Act) are difficult to follow." The agency is taking comments now for a rule-making update.

On antitrust issues -- the other major focus of the FTC -- Leibowitz confirmed that the agency is looking in to Google Search, "both from a consumer protection and antitrust" perspective. But he wouldn't say much on the topic, noting only that the investigation is just starting up.

The agency is hosting a "Workshop on dominant platforms" this fall that will look in depth on the major four or five tech platforms and how much control they have, or don't, over consumer choice and economic control, he added.

Previously: Obama picks Leibowitz as FTC chairman