For any technology company, continuous innovation is essential to stay relevant. But new features and functionality are not enough. Increasingly, consumers want innovations that help them keep their personal information secure and private. And policymakers and regulators are looking to industry to take the lead on creating new tools and policies that enhance privacy and data protection.
To explore these issues in more detail, last week we hosted our latest “@Microsoft Conversations on Privacy” in our Washington, D.C. office. Our theme was “Empowering Consumers with Privacy Innovations,” and the discussion explored some of the many privacy-enhancing technologies that organizations are developing to assist their customers. We also examined the expectations that regulators and policymakers have for companies to help enhance consumers’ data protection, and heard feedback on the progress made in this area to date.
I had the pleasure of representing Microsoft on the panel. I was joined by an impressive group of privacy experts including Chris Calabrese, Legislative Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union; Sarah Downey, Senior Privacy Strategist at Abine Inc., a company focused on privacy solutions; Chris Olsen, Assistant Director, Division of Privacy and Identity Protection at the Federal Trade Commission; and Danny Sepulveda, Senior Advisor to Sen. John Kerry (D-MA). Prof. Peter Swire, from the Moritz College of Law of Ohio State University, moderated the discussion.
The panelists generally agreed that the online industry and online advertisers have made good progress in recent years developing privacy-enhancing tools for Web users, particularly those that increase awareness about online tracking and offer controls for people who want to use them. “You have to start innovating where the consumer is, and that is on the browser,” said Sarah Downey, as she described the Do Not Track Plus tool that Abine has developed.
Chris Olsen cited the self-regulatory efforts of the online behavioral advertising industry to increase transparency, and Chris Calabrese applauded Microsoft’s work on Tracking Protection Lists in Internet Explorer 9, and our recent announcement to turn “on” by default “Do Not Track” when we release Internet Explorer 10 later this year.
Still, everyone agreed that more needs to be done to help consumers understand and, if they choose, control the collection and use of their online information.
“We are at a point where you are public by default, and private by extreme effort,” said Danny Sepulveda, noting Sen. Kerry would like to see the balance shift so consumers who want to maintain their privacy online do not have to bear as much of the burden. For instance, Sepulveda said, if a company is “going to be selling information about me, I have a right to know, and I have a right to verify that it’s accurate.”
Virtually all the panelists agreed that mobile computing is one area that presents the most opportunity for privacy innovation in the coming months and years. Chris Olsen said the FTC is watching the mobile environment closely, because the Commission feels mobile is lagging the online advertising industry when it comes to transparency and consumer choice. “Consumers don’t understand privacy policies written or displayed on mobile devices,” he said.
For Microsoft’s part, as I said at the event, we are proud of the innovations we have made in the area of privacy and data protection. Some of the innovative work I mentioned included the user transparency and controls we offer through our Personal Data Dashboard; our decision to turn on the “Do Not Track” signal by default in Internet Explorer 10; the newly launched redesign of some of our privacy statements; and the innovative work being done by Microsoft Research.
As we continue to develop products and services that use data in innovative ways and provide real value for customers, such as location-based mapping services, we will continue to look for innovative ways to do so while protecting privacy at the same time.