Privacy Advisor

Maryland AG discusses “Privacy in the Digital Age”

June 27, 2012

By Angelique Carson, CIPP/US

The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) recently elected Maryland Attorney General Doug Gansler as its president. As the organization’s initiative for the year, Gansler has selected “Privacy in the Digital Age,” which he says is “of concern to everybody” and at the height of public discussion. In this exclusive for The Privacy Advisor, Gansler discusses his ambitions to find the line between privacy invasions and companies’ legitimate business interests, encouraging companies to be transparent and attorney generals’ increasing role as the “Internet police.”

The Privacy Advisor: As president, what are your priorities?

Gansler:  Every year, there’s a president of the NAAG and you deal with the morale and leadership issues that come up. For example, we just had a national foreclosure settlement, a $26 billion settlement, so you deal with those kinds of things. But every NAAG president picks an initiative and then there are a number of conferences that you have during the course of the year. There will actually be a two-day conference at National Harbor in Maryland, April 14 to 16, 2013. It will be focused on privacy in the digital age, and we’ll have a number of panels on that. The real focus is to discuss and try to flesh out where the line is between protecting consumers’ privacy rights and the legitimate business interests of companies that do business on the Internet.

The Privacy Advisor: Do AGs disagree on where that line is?

Gansler:  I don’t think anybody has the clear answer, but I think some AGs might have a more heightened view of the need to protect privacy and others might say, “Let the free market deal with it.” But it’s not set up as a contentious thing as much as the Internet is relatively new and the technology is moving literally at light speed. The regulatory environment and the legal cases are way behind so there are a lot of different views of it--even within companies there are different views on what should be. So where do we draw that line? When Google decides to peruse individual Gmail accounts, that is clearly an invasion of privacy. The question is, is it an appropriate or acceptable invasion vis-à-vis Google’s legitimate interests of having advertisements. The services Google provides are wonderful--people avail themselves all the time; it’s all free to the consumer, which is why Google has to have ads. Where do you draw that line? How important is it for Google to be able to, with laser certainty, target people with specific ads versus protecting people’s privacy?

The Privacy Advisor: How did you select “Privacy in the Digital Age” as this year’s theme?

Gansler:  When I knew I was in the queue to become president, I started thinking about presidential initiatives, and I wanted to think of a topic that is of concern to everybody as opposed to some of the more specific issues that we’ve dealt with. Human trafficking was last year’s theme, and it’s an incredibly important issue that needed light shed on it, but it’s not necessarily something everyone thinks about every day. Internet privacy is something everyone is affected by and thinks about all the time. At the time, I floated the idea to a couple friends, and they said “Yeah, but, in two years those issues will all be resolved.” But the reality is that it’s at the height of public discussion of these issues. A big example is what do Internet companies--companies that conduct business on the Internet, or brick and mortar companies that have websites or solely Internet companies--what do they do with the personal information they are collecting and to whom do they disseminate that information? And does the consumer know? Is there transparency? Does the consumer have the ability to opt out of that?

The Privacy Advisor: Are there more outcomes you’d like to see from this year’s focus?

Gansler:  There are certainly other issues that come under the rubric, such as cyber bullying and cyber security and national protection of American business interests. That’s what I’m hopeful for. We’ve had a panel on online gaming, and I hope we’ll get into the issue of global human trafficking. If I’m walking down the street and my iPhone says there’s a sale at the Chipotle on the right on burritos, that’s spooky to some people, and others care and are happy to know about it because they are hungry for a burrito. It seems to me there are some things that are over the line in terms of privacy issues, but mostly there are gray areas.

The Privacy Advisor: Are AGs increasingly finding privacy cases on their desks?

Gansler:  Yeah, I think attorneys general have become essentially the Internet police. In many instances, the local prosecutor is very concerned, as they ought to be, with street crime and the federal government is increasingly concerned with terrorism and homeland security and that leaves a void which AGs have been filling in cases we’ve done with Craigslist, backpage.com, Myspace, JuicyCampus.com, Peoplesdirt.com and Facebook. We’ve had a number of agreements with them and on and on. And so the attorney generals have increasingly stepped into that space, not exclusively, but I think we have a heightened role.

The Privacy Advisor: Any words to the wise to companies looking to avoid AG attention?

Gansler:  Thus far, our ability to work things out with Internet companies has been very successful. I think both sides have an interest in this. Many of us perceive Internet companies as a bunch of 26-year-old people with ponytails sitting in cubicles saying, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could do this?” But there may be legal implications, and I think we’ve been able to find the middle ground pretty much on any case. I think the two biggest issues seem to be transparency and an ability to opt out in the privacy arena. I think companies need to be cognizant of invading people’s privacy and what that means to them.