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Brave Alerts FTC On Threats From Business Practices With Big Data

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) held a "Privacy, Big Data, And Competition" hearing on November 6-8, 2018 as part of its "Competition And Consumer Protection in the 21st Century" series of discussions. During that session, the FTC asked for input on several topics:

  1. "What is “big data”? Is there an important technical or policy distinction to be drawn between data and big data?
  2. How have developments involving data – data resources, analytic tools, technology, and business models – changed the understanding and use of personal or commercial information or sensitive data?
  3. Does the importance of data – or large, complex data sets comprising personal or commercial information – in a firm’s ordinary course operations change how the FTC should analyze mergers or firm conduct? If so, how? Does data differ in importance from other assets in assessing firm or industry conduct?
  4. What structural, behavioral or conduct remedies should the FTC consider when remedying antitrust harm in a market or industry where data or personal or commercial information are a significant product or a key competitive input?
  5. Are there policy recommendations that would facilitate competition in markets involving data or personal or commercial information that the FTC should consider?
  6. Do the presence of personal information or privacy concerns inform or change competition analysis?
  7. How do state, federal, and international privacy laws and regulations, adopted to protect data and consumers, affect competition, innovation, and product offerings in the United States and abroad?"

Brave, the developer of a web browser, submitted comments to the FTC which highlighted two concerns:

"First, big tech companies “cross-use” user data from one part of their business to prop up others. This stifles competition, and hurts innovation and consumer choice. Brave suggests that FTC should investigate. Second, the GDPR is emerging as a de facto international standard. Whether this helps or harms United States firms will be determined by whether the United States enacts and actively enforces robust federal privacy laws."

A letter by Dr. Johnny Ryan, the Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer at Brave, described in detail the company's concerns:

"The cross-use and offensive leveraging of personal information from one line of business to another is likely to have anti-competitive effects. Indeed anti-competitive practices may be inevitable when companies with Google’s degree of market dominance update their privacy policies to include the cross-use of personal information. The result is that a company can leverage all the personal information accumulated from its users in one line of business to dominate other lines of business too. Rather than competing on the merits, the company can enjoy the unfair advantage of massive network effects... The result is that nascent and potential competitors will be stifled, and consumer choice will be limited... The cross-use of data between different lines of business is analogous to the tying of two products. Indeed, tying and cross-use of data can occur at the same time, as Google Chrome’s latest “auto sign in to everything” controversy illustrates..."

Historically, Google let Chrome web browser users decide whether or not to sign in for cross-device usage. The Chrome 69 update forced auto sign-in, but a Chrome 70 update restored users' choice after numerous complaints and criticism.

Regarding topic #7 by the FTC, Brave's response said:

"A de facto international standard appears to be emerging, based on the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)... the application of GDPR-like laws for commercial use of consumers’ personal data in the EU, Britain (post EU), Japan, India, Brazil, South Korea, Malaysia, Argentina, and China bring more than half of global GDP under a common standard. Whether this emerging standard helps or harms United States firms will be determined by whether the United States enacts and actively enforces robust federal privacy laws. Unless there is a federal GDPR-like law in the United States, there may be a degree of friction and the potential of isolation for United States companies... there is an opportunity in this trend. The United States can assume the global lead by adopting the emerging GDPR standard, and by investing in world-leading regulation that pursues test cases, and defines practical standards..."

Currently, companies collect, archive, share, and sell consumers' personal information at will -- often without notice nor consent. While all 50 states and territories have breach notification laws, most states have not upgraded their breach notification laws to include biometric and passport data. While the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is the federal law which governs healthcare data and related breaches, many consumers share health data with social media sites -- robbing themselves of HIPAA protections.

Moreover, it's an unregulated free-for-all of data collection, archiving, and sharing by telecommunications companies after the revoking in 2017 of broadband privacy protections for consumers in the USA. Plus, laws have historically focused upon "declared data" (e.g., the data users upload or submit into websites or apps) while ignoring "inferred data" -- which is arguably just as sensitive and revealing.

Regarding future federal privacy legislation, Brave added:

"... The GDPR is compatible with a United States view of consumer protection and privacy principles. Indeed, the FTC has proposed important privacy protections to legislators in 2009, and again in 2012 and 2014, which ended up being incorporated in the GDPR. The high-level principles of the GDPR are closely aligned, and often identical to, the United States’ privacy principles... The GDPR also incorporates principles endorsed by the U.S. in the 1980 OECD Guidelines on the Protection of Privacy and Transborder Flows of Personal Data; and the principles endorsed by the United States this year, in Article 19.8 (3) of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement."

"The GDPR differs from established United States privacy principles in its explicit reference to “proportionality” as a precondition of data use, and in its more robust approach to data minimization and to purpose specification. In our view, a federal law should incorporate these elements too. We also recommend that federal law should adopt the GDPR definitions of concepts such as “personal data”, “legal basis” including opt-in “consent”, “processing”, “special category personal data”, ”profiling”, “data controller”, “automated decision making”, “purpose limitation”, and so forth, and tools such as data protection impact assessments, breach notification, and records of processing activities."

"In keeping with the fair information practice principles (FIPPs) of the 1974 US Privacy Act, Brave recommends that a federal law should require that the collection of personal information is subject to purpose specification. This means that personal information shall only be collected for specific and explicit purposes. Personal information should not used beyond those purposes without consent, unless a further purpose is poses no risk of harm and is compatible with the initial purpose, in which case the data subject should have the opportunity to opt-out."

Submissions by Brave and others are available to the public at the FTC website in the "Public Comments" section.

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