Privacy Advocate Blasts Government-Hosted Privacy Group

Jeff Chester: 'NTIA is the digital gang that can't shoot straight'

Jeff Chester, Washington's most vocal and relentless privacy advocate, has had enough with the multi stakeholder process hosted by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

In a 34-page report released Thursday, Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, blasts the NTIA's yearlong effort to further the Administration's proposed consumer privacy bill of rights for "failing on all counts."

The CDD's report, delivered to the White House and broadly distributed, was timed to coincide with the NTIA's meeting in the afternoon to review their work to date and go over the "lessons learned" from the past year.

The multi stakeholder group was created by the Commerce Department last July and put under the NTIA. After a year of meetings, the group didn't have a comprehensive "code," but it did agree, albeit loosely, to test a short form notice code of conduct and privacy dashboard designed to bring more transparency for mobile apps. 

For the CDD, that accomplishment was woefully inadequate because the group avoided any examination of the actual operations of the mobile app industry and its impact on consumer privacy. Bluntly titled, "Head in the Digital Sand," the report calls for the Administration to remove the NTIA from the process and move oversight to the Federal Trade Commission. It also calls for the FTC to open up an investigation into the data collection and privacy practices of mobile apps.

"The FTC is much better equipped and knowledgeable about privacy issues," Chester said. "The NTIA is the digital gang that can't shoot straight."

The Commerce Department, Chester said, has a conflict of interest. "It's an extension of the industry. They can't criticize American business practices because the focus of the agency is to expand opportunities for business, including U.S. technology companies that want to collect and share data," he said.

As a result, industry lobbyists determined to thwart any meaningful progress have dominated the entire policy work. "You have Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Adobe—and you expect them to make a good data deal? When the bottom line of the industry is involved, there is no deal possible. You can't have a rational agreement. You're just going to have a firefight," Chester said.

Members of the NTIA process disagreed with Chester and said the CDD report wouldn't help advance their goals. Perhaps Chester should just be a little more patient, suggested Stu Ingis, an attorney with Venable who represented the Direct Marketing Association in the NTIA-hosted meetings.

"This was the first time this exercise was done and this type of meandering diatribe will not help improve the process or result," Ingis said. "CDD may be well intentioned, but it is not reflective of the fact that progress is incremental and must be workable."

The DMA also suggested a few improvements, including the recommendation that any code should be drafted by industry stakeholders because they "are in the best position to ensure that a code is technically workable for adhering companies."

Though there's always a danger when a government agency convenes a wide variety of stakeholders, the NTIA wasn't pushing any agenda, said Genie Barton, vp and director of the ad industry's online behavioral advertising and mobile marketing initiatives for the Better Business Bureau. "Moderator John Verdi [director of NTIA's privacy initiatives] did a remarkable job," Barton said. "While far from perfect, the process was a positive step towards building civility and workable relationships among those with different viewpoints."

During the NTIA "lessons learned" meeting, an FTC representative shot down the idea that the NTIA's role in the process should end. "We view ourselves as an enforcer. Because of that, we are less well suited than the NTIA to serve a convener role."