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Privacy in a World of Data Evolution & Technology Convergence

On September 26, 2017, the Policy Forum hosted a panel discussion, Privacy in a World of Data Evolution & Technology Convergence, as part of our commitment to bring together policymakers, academia, industry and other experts. This symposium featured a diverse group of prominent panelists discussing how 21st century internet technologies and the growing access to “Big Data” impact our expectations for privacy, reshape business models, and influence policymakers as they analyze our nation’s current legal and regulatory frameworks governing privacy. As part of this event, we were pleased to host Jonathan Taplin, Director Emeritus, Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California Annenberg School of Communications (and author of the book Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy) as keynote speaker.

While discussing how some of the largest internet platforms are influencing our culture, Jonathan Taplin stressed the importance of privacy to consumers today, and pointed to the dramatic rise in technological tools like ad blockers to underscore the point. Many people do not have a complete picture of what data is collected and how it is used, including what inferences are drawn from their data and how those inferences can be (and are) acted upon. Professor Michael Kearns of the University of Pennsylvania described how internet platforms such as search engines and social media networks collect vast amounts of personal data – not just sensitive personal information like social security numbers, credit history, and medical records, but also highly “intimate data” like opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and lifestyle choices. Several panelists agreed that the volume and diversity of data collection, when placed into what Professor Kearns calls the “machine learning pipeline,” underscore the need for maintaining consistent privacy regulations, addressing the difficulty in quantifying the sensitivity of data, and getting technical experts involved in privacy policy discussions.

The panel discussion also focused on the need for technological neutrality and a harmonized privacy framework across business sectors. The growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) alone shows the ripple effect that innovation has on the legal and regulatory framework of data privacy. Panelists agreed that avoiding a “jurisdictional melee” among different regulatory bodies is an important policy goal and that a patchwork of state laws governing the internet would be unworkable. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has successfully played the role of an informed central privacy regulator that oversees the same standards for all industries. And the FTC’s experience protecting consumer privacy interests is well-proven, having launched hundreds of privacy enforcement actions against a wide range of companies in the past twenty years. A consistent nationwide approach both avoids consumer confusion and helps create an environment conducive to innovation and economic growth. After all, consumers will continue to interact with a wide array of technological tools — smartphones, connected cars, connected TVs, virtual reality gaming, augmented reality shopping, and so on — but want to know that there is an agency charged with enforcing consistent privacy protections.

For our part, AT&T is committed to protecting our customers’ privacy and keeping their personal information safe. AT&T has long supported a consistent privacy framework that focuses on the sensitivity of the data and not the service or entity that obtains the data, and we look forward to working with policymakers to ensure consumers’ privacy expectations are met.

At AT&T’s Policy Forum, we’re excited about our mission to share how AT&T is helping to shape the future of communications from the living room to the cloud. We’re also proud of the opportunity to cultivate further dialogue among academia, policymakers, and stakeholders on complex issues like data privacy. In this way, we hope to improve understanding of the issues among all stakeholders, and contribute to a meaningful discussion on workable, common sense solutions.

For more information on the event, including speaker presentations and biographies, click here.