Privacy Harms and the Effectiveness of the Notice and Choice Framework
32 Pages Posted: 31 Mar 2014 Last revised: 26 Jul 2015
Date Written: March 29, 2014
In the last fifteen years, the Federal Trade Commission and the White House have promoted notice and choice as the preferred mechanism for protecting consumers’ privacy online. But law and policy scholars doubt the efficacy of this mechanism. Research shows that consumers rarely read website privacy policies, that such policies are often too complex for users to understand, and that website policy statements do not match consumers’ privacy expectations. Efforts to ameliorate theses issues through technological tools, such as privacy filters and do-not-track codes, have been unsuccessful. Further, these tools do not address whether notice and choice theory aligns with the actual privacy harms that consumers experience.
This alignment remains unexplored. This article, thus, proposes to examine the relationship between the notice and choice theory and users’ actual privacy concerns. The article takes a novel approach that examines privacy litigation and FTC enforcement actions. This focus on the wrongs litigated in the real world reveals the most important harms that consumers experience and provides a better understanding of the efficacy of the notice and choice framework.
The data set compiled to support the research for the article consists of all federal class action complaints alleging online privacy violations filed during the last ten years and the Federal Trade Commission complaints and settlements addressing online privacy. The article next addresses the roles that jurisdiction and competence play in framing claims and identifies a typology of the wrongful acts experienced by consumers. The research shows that four types of claims appear in both private litigation and public enforcement with respect to personal information: (1) unauthorized disclosure, (2) surreptitious collection, (3) failure to secure, and (4) undue retention.
The article then applies this typology to map “zones of effectiveness” for the notice and choice regime. The article identifies which wrongs a proper notice and choice regime can and cannot address. The research demonstrates that while some wrongful practices might be avoided by the inclusion of specific statements in a notice, others will be incurable through notice. The latter set of wrongs is, thus, outside the “zone of effectiveness” of a notice and choice regime. Lastly, the article concludes with a discussion of whether and how the harms that consumers experience match the outcomes of litigation and FTC settlement orders.
This research is supported by the National Science Foundation grant 1330214 “TWC SBE: Option: Frontier: Collaborative: Towards Effective Web Privacy Notice and Choice: A Multi-Disciplinary Prospective.”
Keywords: privacy, class action, website policy, Federal Trade Commission, settlements
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