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WASHINGTON -- As political momentum appears to be building for enacting tighter consumer privacy protections on the Internet, a prominent digital-rights group is launching a grassroots campaign to mobilize online users and press for legislation.
"We believe the stars are aligned right now to make a major push for a consumer privacy law," said Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).
CDT has long been an active participant in the policy debate over Internet privacy, one that has sparked considerable discussion throughout the decade, but little action on the part of lawmakers and regulators.
Today's launch of the "Take Back Your Privacy" campaign comes on the eve of the first in a series of workshops the Federal Trade Commission will convene on the issue of digital privacy. In the meantime, House lawmakers have been crafting consumer privacy legislation and are expected to circulate a draft bill early next year.
Harris told reporters this morning at the group's office that the campaign is launching with a strong social media component that aims to foster awareness and drive consumer demand for stronger privacy controls.
"The goal is not to own the campaign," she said. "We're trying to seed a user-driven movement."
Among the features built into the campaign's Web site is a mechanism for users to report privacy complaints, either to the community CDT will host on the site, or directly to the FTC.
For CDT, the new campaign is a self-conscious shift to a more activist approach than its previous work in the privacy sector. The group has included a letter-writing tool, for instance, that provides a form e-mail for users to send to their representative asking for action on the privacy front.
The fight in Congress has been a slow process. The House committee that is expected to produce the privacy bill has held several hearings on the subject throughout the year, calling on various members of the industry, research, and advocacy communities to testify.
In the meantime, some of the largest Internet companies have expressed support for a privacy law, but warned against legislation that would get too deep in the weeds and set detailed rules that could curb the growth of a rapidly evolving industry.
CDT is also calling for a baseline privacy law that wouldn't target specific technologies, but would rather establish meaningful parameters governing how information is collected both online and off, and give consumers more notice and control over the process.
Harris said that framework, which could also see the FTC vested with greater enforcement authority, would avoid the scenario described by opponents of legislation, who fear that an overreaching bill could curb advertisers' ability to target messages to consumers on the Internet, in the process sapping the availability of free content and services online.
"We recognize that free content is something that consumers benefit from on the Internet. We know that's supported by advertising. We know advertising is supported by data, and we don't expect that model to go away. We're not urging that model to go away," she said. "But we are interested in giving consumers more ability to make decisions and become stronger participants in decisions about whether their data is collected, who collects their data, and to what extent."
In that spirit, CDT is hoping to build a community that will put pressure on Internet firms to deploy tools that will give consumers more detailed privacy controls and insight into what's happening with their information.
Harris noted some recent encouraging signs from heavy-hitters in the industry, such as Facebook's announcement Monday that it would end its network-based privacy approach and Google's recent move to offer consumers a privacy dashboard.
"We're beginning to see what I would call a few green shoots in the development of user-friendly tools online that seek to put privacy back in the hands of Internet users," Harris said. She made it plain, however, that the tools she has seen from the industry are at best an early start. "They are few and far between, and I think they're not necessarily widely adopted."
In addition to trying to stoke consumer demand for more privacy controls, CDT is also planning to set up and host a developer forum to encourage the creation of new, open source privacy tools.
Kenneth Corbin is associate editor at InternetNews.com.