Get more secure - or else!

The US Federal Trade Commissioner and FBI warn tech CEOs to address security and privacy concerns or lose the opportunity to self-regulate
Written by Lisa M. Bowman, Contributor

The tech industry has a choice: Develop real proposals for protecting consumer privacy and network security or stand back and watch the US government do it. That was the blunt message delivered by US Federal Trade Commissioner (FTC), Orson Swindle, on Tuesday at the Global Internet Summit, a gathering of more than 900 tech leaders and government officials with an aim to address policy concerns in the digital age.

"It's going to be your way or the government's way. Your choice," Swindle said. "I would urge every CEO in this country to personally inspect their company's privacy policy."

Swindle praised companies including IBM, Microsoft and Procter & Gamble for refusing to advertise on Web sites that don't have a clear cut privacy policy. Although he said government regulation of general consumer privacy issues is premature, Swindle acknowledged that consumers have a right to be concerned that their private data could be misused. "These concerns about online privacy are absolutely real," he said.

So far, the FTC is only required to tackle Internet privacy concerns in cases involving abuses of children, medical records and financial data.

In a separate presentation, Michael Vatis, director of the FBI's National Infrastructure Protection Center, pleaded with companies to take responsibility for the security of their networks, especially in the wake of the recent Denial of Service attacks that shut down eight major Web sites, including ZDNet. "Security is the responsibility of the private sector," he said.

Vatis also said that if companies don't take more responsibility, they'll be sorry. "The range of threats to citizens, to government, to business, is much broader than a Denial of Service attack that lasts just a few hours," he said. He then listed some who might steal data for the purposes of extortion, including organised criminals, terrorists and others.

Several chief executives appear to be listening. Industry bigwigs including Dell Computer chairman Michael Dell, America Online chairman Steve Case and Network Solutions chairman Mike Daniels all participated in the summit.

Every nascent industry has pushed for self-regulation -- or the ability to do whatever it wants without the interference of government -- at one time or another, and now it's tech's turn to plead to be left alone.

Industry executives have had luck so far -- getting lawmakers to hold of on policies such as taxing Internet transactions. Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore, who organized Tuesday's summit, has been one of the most vocal proponents of a ban on taxing Web transactions that involve consumers. And Tom Bliley, who gave the summit's keynote address and recently announced his retirement from Congress, reiterated the anti-tax, hands-off sentiment pervasive at the conference. "This would be a surefire way to kill the goose that lays the golden egg," Bliley said of taxing Internet sales, adding that in his remaining days "I will do everything in my power to oppose new regulations and taxes."

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