Governments across the world are increasingly under pressure from privacy advocates and some consumers to better regulate the use of personal data on line. Under Ed Vaizey’s proposed plan announced last week, Google and Facebook and other social media networks and search engines would be required to sign up to a new code under which consumers would be able to get redress if they feel their privacy has been invaded.

The UK government is in discussions with the ICO, Information Commissioners Office, about how to develop such a code. What this will mean for advertisers using social media is as yet unclear though Ed Vaizey likened this idea to the mediation service offered by the Press Complaints Commission, which is both worrying and perhaps reassuring since the PCC is not renowned as particularly effective means of redress for consumers but is totally self regulated by the newspaper industry. Thus we might be led to assume that the search engines are being asked to run their own such self regulatory body. Given the lack of funds in the public purse one can assume this to be the case. No doubt Google will argue that it already has means for consumers to complain and seek redress. The cost of establishing and maintaining an independent body offering a complaints and mediation service would be colossal and without funding it seems unlikely this idea will take off in the immediate future.

What would it mean though for website owners and major brands?

The government wants major websites to sign up to a code which is advertised on the home page of that site with a direct link through to the Code and a ‘simple’ explanation of how to complain. This proposal is similar in many ways to the IAB UK’s Best Practice Principles for on line advertising community and their call for an icon to be placed along side any advertising served to a user by means of behavioural targeting. However the industry should resist too many such icons and links. There is a danger of a ludicrous proliferation of information, which we already know tends to confuse consumers rather than help. there is also already an inevitable need to have links to complicated privacy policies, marketing codes, promotional terms and conditions.

There is little doubt that transparency is already key to ensuring compliance with data protection legislation but it will be interesting to see if any industry body or indeed the ICO, will get any additional powers to enforce punishment on those that breach the new code. As it is the ICO had  limited powers to fine for serious breaches of the Data Protection Act, though those powers were extended in April 2010. The ICO can now impose a fine of up to £500,000. It is unlikely that an industry led body will have sanctions involving the power to fine.

To date regulators in the UK have taken a fairly pragmatic and sensible approach to privacy on the Internet. However Europe is taking a firmer view and we shall have to await further decisions on Google’s harvesting of data during its Street view mapping and in relation to on line behavioural advertising. The advice to advertisers in the on line environment is to take care and be transparent. For a summary of issues and best practice guides see our Social Media Marketing Guidance Note.