Will Data Privacy Survive in the Information Wild West?

The San Francisco Chronicle editorial board’s recent assessment of the internet as a “wild west frontier” could not be more accurate. As a relatively new “frontier,” the lack of basic governing principles on the internet – what is permissible, who is in control, what constitutes online privacyhas produced a relatively lawless space where chaos is the dominating force.

Right now, you are not in control of your online information; corporations can treat it in almost any way they wish and without legislation, they will continue to take advantage of the wild west.

Lawmakers have tried to bring some control to the internet frontier and reduce widespread copyright infringement through initiatives like SOPA and PIPA, but they’ve been met with overwhelming resistance from a growing chorus of free speech advocates.

There’s another player though, in the form of California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who has taken on a sheriff role in this new “wild west.” Instead of trying to limit the flow of information on the internet, Harris has taken a middle-ground approach, working with major app creators to develop criteria for more clear disclosure of privacy policies, in hopes that future online privacy conflicts can be avoided. And she isn’t afraid to play hardball either – she’s sent notices to 100 app makers who didn’t comply with these guidelines.

If we wait for the federal government to act, the digital playing field will have changed so significantly that their fixes will be outdated and irrelevant. I encourage Congress to address this problem, but I expect to see them follow the best practices established by individual states-California or otherwise.

This becomes even more important as we continue the shift to mobile technologies and social media platforms as we will eventually have reached a point where we can no longer put the information genie back in the bottle.

For the most part, the editorial board is absolutely correct, except for one notable omission – you, the internet user, must be the last line of defense against those attempting to breach your internet privacy and attack your online reputation. Even if lawmakers and law enforcement officials like Harris win the war they’re fighting on your behalf – forcing app makers to make their privacy policies more accessible – it’s still up to you to read them, understand them and act responsibly.

John Sileo is an online privacy expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy, identity theft and fraud. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.