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Cash-Strapped Consumer And Privacy Groups Petition Commerce Dept To Enable Better Remote Participation

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Tuesday, July 3 2012

A group of 12 consumer and privacy groups have told the U.S. Commerce Department's top ecommerce and telecommunications official that they're being effectively being shut out of an important privacy-standards workshop scheduled to take place on July 12 because the department is refusing to use modern telecommunications technology to enable a higher-level of remote participation.

"The NTIA's decision to have NTIA staff act as a proxy for people who are not physically present, taking their questions and comments and relaying them to those in the room is simply inadequate," the group of 12 told Larry Strickling, the Commerce Department's assistant secretary for communications and information. "Equitable participation requires both in-person and real-time remote access."

The groups, which first sent the letter off on Monday, include the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Digital Democracy, Common Sense Media, Consumer Action, the Consumer Federation of America, Consumer Watchdog, Consumers Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Privacy Lives, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, Privacy Times and US PIRG.

The NTIA is short for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. That's the department that's organizing the workshops that are meant to convene all U.S. stakeholders to develop a code of conduct to implement the administration's Privacy Bill of Rights. The first workshop is taking place inside the Beltway on July 12, and will focus on how mobile app creators inform users about what they do with their information.

In its meeting notice, the NTIA said:

"There will be an opportunity for stakeholders viewing the webcast to participate remotely in the meeting through an NTIA in-room proxy. The meeting will generally employ a facilitated discussion format moderated by an independent facilitator. Stakeholders who attend the meeting in person, as well as stakeholders who participate remotely, will have an opportunity to make brief statements in response to questions posed by the facilitator. NTIA will provide a mechanism for remote participants to transmit their responses to NTIA, and NTIA proxies will then read remote participants' statements on the in-room microphones."

But the 12 signatories to the letter sent off to Strickling on Monday say that's not good enough. Why can't the NTIA -- an agency that's in charge of promoting broadband and the digital economy -- use modern telecommunications technologies like an audio bridge with a moderator, wikis and Internet Relay Chat to facilitate a more interactive discussion, they asked.

That's what the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) did when it worked on standards issues related to its Smart Grid effort. The groups noted that NIST used online document editing, GoTo Meeting and a Wiki to manage the input of more than 1,500 organizations.

They also pointed to the World Wide Web Consortium's process of holding weekly teleconference calls and IRC sessions as another example of how the NTIA could make the process more interactive.

The NTIA's July 12 workshop is meant to be the first in a series that will eventually lead to the establishment of industry-wide privacy norms in the United States. Comment letters from the various stakeholders with an interest in the discussion are available here.

The NTIA had no comment when forwarded the letter. We'll update if and when that changes.