Carrying out a plan announced earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission (“FTC”) convened a day-long public workshop on “The Big Picture: Comprehensive Online Data Collection” on December 6, 2012.  The workshop was intended to examine the practices and privacy implications of “comprehensive” data collection about consumers’ online activities.  Data collection capabilities of entities like Internet service providers and operating systems were discussed, but many speakers also focused heavily on data collection for advertising purposes using technologies such as cookies and web beacons.

FTC Commissioner Julie Brill, who opened the conference, voiced concern that online data could be used to harm consumers at work or in the financial arena.  She expressed interest in considering how the FTC’s existing recommendations for commercial data practices should apply to comprehensive online data collection.  FTC Commissioner Ohlhausen, speaking later in the day, stated that an eventual privacy framework should meet certain principles including technology neutrality, focus on consumer harm, and promotion of market approaches.

The workshop included panels on the risks and benefits of online data collection, consumer attitudes and choices, and the future of such collection. Several themes emerged from these discussions.  Some speakers, generally consumer advocates and academics, argued that online data collection presents risks of harm to consumers.  They contended that consumers cannot respond to these risks in the market because they are unaware of commercial data practices.  Other speakers from industry and academia highlighted the benefits of data collection, arguing that any regulation should not restrict collection but rather should address any data uses that cause concrete consumer harm in a technology neutral fashion.  Many speakers agreed that comprehensive data collection does not typically occur because consumers divide their time among many devices, browsers, and networks.