The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy and education center based in San Diego, recently launched a new tool to give users a way to speak out about privacy concerns.  Privacy Rights Clearinghouse is inviting individuals who have questions about consumer privacy issues, or who are upset about privacy-invasive practices, to use this online form to submit complaints. They promise to provide individual responses to the questions and complaints they receive within a couple days.

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse also offers users the option of allowing their concerns to be made available to the media or government regulatory agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Complaints shared with government agencies will typically be entered into the Consumer Sentinel, which is a database shared by dozens of government agencies such as state attorneys general, the Department of Justice, the Department of Treasury, and many others. This information is also used as the basis for annual reports which serve to educate legislators about issues concerning to consumers. 

According to the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, the online complaint tool was created in response to a research project published in 2009 called KnowPrivacy.  The KnowPrivacy project was designed by UC Berkeley’s School of Information students Joshua Gomez, Travis Pinnick, and Ashkan Soltani to research user privacy expectations and identify specific practices that may be harmful or deceptive.  One of the most interesting discoveries of KnowPrivacy was that users were deeply concerned about online privacy but that many were not submitting complaints:

Our review of survey data suggests that users are very concerned about privacy and do not want websites to collect and share their personal information without permission. Yet, the number of complaints made to the various organizations is low relative to the number of Internet users. The FTC had only 6,713 for five years (in the General Privacy category), the PRC [Privacy Rights Clearinghouse] had 2,202 for the same period and the COPP [California Office of Privacy Protection] had 1,152. TRUSTe had 7,041 that it categorized as privacy related. Website operators and direct marketing agencies might point to this low volume and claim that users don‘t care about data collection. However, that would be a misinterpretation of the data. It is apparent from our research that users do care. The low number of complaints simply conforms to our hypothesis that users file complaints only when two conditions are met: 1) they perceive an invasion of their privacy, and 2) they know where to file a complaint.  (Read full report.)

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse teamed up with UC Berkeley Law School to combat the second part of this problem – creating an online pathway for consumers to document their privacy problems. And it seems to be working. In an email statement, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's Director of Communications Amber Yoo reported that they received 50 complaints in the first four days after the Online Complaint Center launched. Seventy-eight-percent (78%) of the complaints filed to date had the "share" option enabled. Sixty-percent (60%) of the complaints are against companies, 18% are against government agencies, 12% are against a person and 10% are against "none" (usually about a general industry practice). They plan to continue promoting the online complaint tool in the coming months.

We’re excited to see this new project from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and hope that users will consider using it to document their privacy concerns and get personalized responses to their questions.  In time, we hope this tool can be useful in teaching consumers about privacy issues as well as educating regulators, advocacy organizations, businesses, and the general public about what privacy issues matter most to everyday users.

Full disclosure: I worked at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse during the early phases of this project and helped with the initial designs of the complaint tool.

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