EPIC Honors Wall Street Journal for “What They Know” Series


Earlier this week, FPF’s Co-Chair Christopher Wolf, had the pleasure of honoring The Wall Street Journal for its  “What They Know” series, on behalf of EPIC at a special event in Washington, D.C.   His remarks from that celebration are featured below:

I am pleased to serve on EPIC’s Advisory Board and pleased to have been asked to present an award from EPIC to the Wall Street Journal.

EPIC has been explaining for some time that there is a big gap between the type of tracking that companies are engaged in on the Internet and what most people know or think is occurring. As EPIC has explained it, the general public has very little idea that every second they are on the Internet, their behavior is being tracked; that even if  the information collected is anonymous, it is used to create a “profile” which is then sold to companies on “stock-market-like” exchanges to create and deliver targeted advertising back to the individual.

In 2010, EPIC gained a new ally in spreading the work about what is going on online.

Starting last summer, The Wall Street Journal began a  year-long “What They Know” investigation into online tracking and exposed a fast-growing network of hundreds of companies that collect highly personal details about Internet users—their online activities, political views, health worries, shopping habits, financial situations and even, in some cases, their real names—to feed a $26 billion U.S. online-advertising industry.  As  the Journal described it, the nation’s top fifty websites installed an average of 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually without warning, for a total of 3,180 tracking files. A dozen sites installed more than a hundred. Two-thirds of those files were installed by 131 companies that are in the tracking and online consumer profiling business.

Having been in the online privacy world since it began, I have never witnessed a impact like the one theWall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series has had in the privacy world.

First, as a privacy litigator and FTC regulatory attorney, the series has generated a lot of business for me and my colleagues at Hogan Lovells.   Always happy to have the business.  

But more importantly, the series has provoked debates and discussions about privacy that we have never seen before.  It quite literally has made privacy front page news. In many ways, the series of articles about online privacy that the Wall Street Journal began publishing last year has set the tone for the privacy debate nationally.

At a recent conference, one technology executive complained to Julie Angwin, one of the Journal’s principal reporters on the series that “When you use words like ‘surveillance’ and ‘spying,’ it freaks people out.”  And another participant at that conference said the series directly had influenced the comments made by Congressional representatives. “The question addressed to me [by Congress] was, ‘Look at these apps the Wall Street Journal found—so you, app developer, tell us why we shouldn’t be afraid of these.” 

Julie Angwin responded to that comment by saying “What we’re doing is reporting the facts,”  “The fact is, we tested a bunch of apps, and this is the data they were sending,” she said. “And this is pretty revolutionary in the news business.” “Most often, data written about in the newspaper is provided to them, as in, ‘a Brooking Institution report says this.’ We decided to test things ourselves. It was expensive, it was difficult. And it turns out, we now have the best data available about what apps are doing. It’s hard to replicate that study. You have to hack the phones, and measure the traffic.”

She continued: “There are some loaded words in those stories, I agree. But I also think that this is actually what is happening—you are being tracked.”

[I should mention that Ashkan Soltani, an independent researcher and consultant on privacy, who is here with us tonight, assisted the Wall Street Journal with its research.]

The series triggered significant steps to provide greater transparency and consumer control over the use of data collected, including a major bipartisan bill in the Senate sponsored by John McCain and John Kerry calling for a “privacy Bill of Rights” for Americans which was a direct response to the Journal’s work, as the senators made clear in introducing the bill, with Senator McCain reading from a What They Know article at the press conference.

And in the House, the series also prompted a bipartisan privacy bill in the House, introduced by Cliff Stearns (R, Fla.) and Utah Democrat Jim Matheson, that encouraged companies to offer more information to consumers about how they are being tracked. The bill also called for the data-collection industry to develop a policing program that would be approved by the Federal Trade Commission.

Representative Jackie Speiers, who has introduced a Do Not Track bill in the House, is quoted as saying: “I must tell you that until I read it in the Wall Street Journal, and their 13-part series, I didn’t know that Dictionary.com was just a means by which tracking takes place. And they’re using something like the dictionary to identify you and then to track you. I was pretty outraged when I read that.”

The series also has echoed through the advertising and tech industries, with industry groups toughening privacy codes and dozens of businesses changing basic practices. Microsoft, Apple and Mozilla have all moved to install robust new privacy features in their browsers in direct response to our report of Microsoft’s quashing of a privacy feature at the behest of advertisers.  The Future of Privacy Forum, the think tank that I founded and co-chair with Jules Polonetsky, who is here tonight, has helped to convene discussions among companies, privacy advocates, privacy scholars and regulators about how to improve privacy online for consumers and, without question the Journal series was a catalyst.  The Future of Privacy Forum is hoping our efforts will further help the App world reach a consensus that the value and convenience of Apps will not be fully realized until and unless privacy is built in.
Over the weekend, I was reading a piece by Dean Starkman in the Columbia Journalism Review about the Journal’s  series and want to share his observations with you.  He said:

Reading The Wall Street Journal’s “What They Know” series on Internet (un)privacy last year, I thought, this has “Pulitzer” written all over it.

I don’t mean that in a cynical way. Unlike some people, I do care who wins the Pulitzers and other prizes because they often reward big, risky, in-depth, investigative reporting, including some of my all-time favorites. 

[And] aside from prizes, there really aren’t any other metrics for journalism quality. 
[So]I thought the series, by Julia Angwin and others, had all the hallmarks of a Pulitzer winner: it was ambitious, risky (some of the companies named had objected vociferously, I am told), well-written, and full of surprises.

Plus, it touched off government investigations and reform. Check, check, and check.

It didn’t win, and wasn’t even a finalist. I’m surprised. Staffers at my old paper were crushed when they learned, one of them tells me. I understand. (I noticed corrections appended to a couple of the stories and don’t know if that was a factor, but none seems major.) 

Well, while perhaps not yet as prestigious as a Pulitzer prize, the EPIC prize tonight is given to the Wall Street Journal for its significant contribution to privacy education, and to shining the line on online privacy issues that has led to an important national discussion.

I am told it is the custom at the Journal not to accept such awards in person, so we will send them their prize and I will report on the recognition I expect you now will give with your applause.

Thank you.