How the Government Fails to Protect Your Digital Rights

The Senate grilled Apple and Google this morning, but it could a lot more

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Representatives from Apple and Google appeared on Capitol Hill today to dodge bullets that continue to fly after their location-based services privacy fiasco with Droid and the iPhone. After the tech behemoths defended apps that help people avoid getting busted for drunk driving and explained how it wasn't their fault privacy policies were so confusing, committee chair Senator Al Franken, offered a no-duh closing remark:

I think people have the right to know who is getting their information and how information is shared and used. I still have serious doubts those rights are being respected in law or in practice.

Ok, so here's the Orwellian takeaway. A couple of the world's biggest and most powerful corporations are tracking our every move and sharing it with whomever wants it. Then there's the whole data-mining business, a multibillion dollar industry responsible for that Zappos ad that follows you everywhere. And, gosh, it seems like some group of hackers brings down a video game network or breaks into a bank's database leaking everybody's personal information every week. In fact, one hacker groups promised today that they would conduct a major online security breach every Monday.

If you're not scared yet, you should be. What Franken's hearing today made very clear is that companies like Google and Apple are going to have to start being more transparent, and consumers are going to have to start sticking up for themselves. And even though lots of very nice people in Washington are working hard to figure this out, digital rights happen on such a personal level that you're probably going to have to start reading those terms and conditions. Thankfully, Ashkan Solani, an independent researcher who testified today, recommended forcefully that tech companies better define what's in user agreements and how it will affect the consumer on a daily basis.

Al Franken's "serious doubts" about digital rights--especially in the mobile arena--are seriously warranted, and other powerhitters in the Senate like John Kerry and John McCain have committed to confronting the issue head-on this year with all kinds of new policies. In his announcement of the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act of 2011 in March, Kerry called the bill "a win for consumers, a win for the Internet and a win for businesses online and off."

According to the Kerry/McCain bill, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will enforce the rights and educate the public on how to avoid being tracked, scammed and/or digitally molested. This is different than the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Elizabeth Warren's would be agency the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. If you've ever tried to figure out basically any process involving the U.S. Government, you'll know that it's a mess. All the FTC has given us so far in terms of education about digital rights are a bunch of crummy cartoons, confusing games, and Google docs. (The irony, I know.)

Are you afraid that free trial for teeth whitening supplies might suck your bank account dry due to fine print legalese in an agreement you didn't read? Here's a video explaining in a complicated way how free trials are much more complicated than you think. Are you worried about protecting your business data from hackers? In just 56 seconds real-life experts explain everything you need to know in a cartoon world. And what about the kids? How do you explain online security to six year-olds? With Google Docs of course--56 pages of them. There's also a game that uses a mall as a metaphor for the internet where noseless figures explain the basics of network security.

Everybody knows that government bureaucracy is confusing and sometimes slow-moving. However, it's worth pointing out that the internet and hackers have been around for a long time. Digital rights are also not a new problem. In fact, nonprofits like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Berkman Center have been defending digital rights for decades. Maybe the FTC will get around to creating a useful portal to understand digital rights one day, but in the meantime, better read the fine print. Lest you may end up ruined by whatever bad things hackers do when they steal your social security number, bank account number, track you down using your iPhone data and whiten your teeth without your consent.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.