FTC proposes new privacy framework

In a highly anticipated move, on December 1, 2010, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) released its report and recommendations regarding protecting personal information gathered online. The FTC recommended moving away from self-regulation by the industry towards a more European, “privacy-by-design” approach, which offers a much greater degree of protection to individuals, including by requiring businesses collecting data online to build privacy protections into their everyday business practices and retain data on consumer preferences and online browsing activity only as long as needed and deleting data on a regular basis.  

While this privacy framework may not be enforceable on its own, FTC’s recommendations therein are expected to be the basis of a broader legislative action. A comprehensive data privacy bill has been circulating in Congress for some time now. For example, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-IL), Rep. Rich Boucher (D-VA), Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) and Senators Mark Pryor (D-AR) and John Kerry (D-MA) have been working on legislation regulating and protecting an individual’s personal information. In fact, according to Rep. Joe Barton, a key figure on the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, privacy legislation is expected to advance despite the takeover of the House by the Republicans.

You can view the full report here.

You can view FTC's press release here.

"Agency Proposes ‘Do Not Track’ Option for Web Users," New York Times (December 1, 2010).

Some doctors seek to prevent patients from reviewing their services online

With the number and popularity of consumer review sites, such as Yelp.com and Angie's List, growing steadily, doctors are beginning to find themselves subjects of online reviews more and more frequently.  In fact, certain web sites, like RateMD.com, are dedicated specifically to rating physicians. 

The Washington Post reported recently on doctors seeking patients to sign contractual forms, commonly known as "gag orders", which may obligate patients not to comment or review their experiences at the doctor's office "without prior written consent" of the physician.  The Post explored the positions of both the advocates and opponents of gag orders.

Unsurprisingly, many doctors are vehemently opposed to the idea of being reviewed online (some cite difficulty in capturing quality of care and outcomes, rather than concentrating on the "ambience" of care, as the primary reason).  Some physicians go a step further and ask patients to sign contractual forms promising not to comment or review their services.  The Post  notes that it is not clear whether gag orders are legally enforceable or even ethical.

While gag orders do not seem to violate the First Amendment, at least in the cases where doctors are not affiliated with a government agency, it remains unclear if such waivers provide doctors with any real remedies, such as liquidated damages.  Aside from asking the patient to find a different healthcare provider, the article may hint at the next best thing, starting their own web site:

I'd love to have a Web site where I could complain about patients," [one physician] said. "All doctors would.

You can find the full article here

"Doctor's Orders," The Washington Post (July 21, 2009).