Commerce and International Privacy Activities: Introduction and Summary of Findings

Report home | Read the report (PDF) | Next section


The rise of privacy as an issue of international attention has taken place during the past forty years. Various agencies of the US Government have played roles on international privacy matters, including the State Department, Federal Trade Commission, Department of Homeland Security, Office of Management and Budget, the Department of Commerce, and scattered other agencies. The privacy activities of these agencies have waxed and waned over the decades. Of the US agencies, the US Federal Trade Commission has played by far the most significant role in consumer privacy issues, for example, identity theft, financial privacy, and a host of issues related to privacy and fair business practices. Historically, the Department of Justice, primarily a law enforcement agency, has never played a significant role in consumer privacy. Indeed, in its law enforcement capacity, the Justice Department is often directly antagonistic to the protection of consumer privacy.

The Department of Commerce has played an occasional but not exclusive role in representing the United States internationally, often with regard to data protection activities in Europe. This report summarizes some of the international privacy activities of the Department, with a major focus on the Safe Harbor Framework established in 2000 with the European Union in response to the requirements of the EU Data Protection Directive.

The website of the US Department of Commerce includes this description of the Department’s mission:

The U.S. Department of Commerce has a broad mandate to advance economic growth and jobs and opportunities for the American people. It has cross cutting responsibilities in the areas of trade, technology, entrepreneurship, economic development, environmental stewardship and statistical research and analysis.

The products and services the department provides touch the lives of Americans and American companies in many ways, including weather forecasts, the decennial census, and patent and trademark protection for inventors and businesses.

The development of commerce to provide new opportunities was the central goal at the department’s beginning in 1903 and it remains a primary obligation today. [3]

The Department is composed of a dozen bureaus and offices, some of which have functions that include specific privacy responsibilities. The Census Bureau and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) engage in policy, operational, and other activities with privacy consequences. These functions are not within the scope of this report, which focuses on international privacy activities.

It is not a surprise that the Department of Commerce is responsive to business interests. What is surprising is that the Department’s high-profile international privacy activities have been so consistently lacking in substance, rigor, and sincerity. However, it now appears from recent activities in Europe that the Department of Commerce’s failure to earnestly operate the Safe Harbor program is resulting in questions about the program’s value because of the Department’s failure to enforce its own rules on US organizations that claim to participate in and benefit from Safe Harbor involvement.






[1] “As part of the Obama Administration’s commitment to promoting the vast economic opportunity of the Internet and protecting individual privacy, the National Science and Technology Council has launched a new Subcommittee on Privacy and Internet Policy. Populated by representatives from more than a dozen Departments, agencies and Federal offices, and co-chaired by the two of us, the subcommittee will develop principles and strategic directions with the goal of fostering consensus in legislative, regulatory, and international Internet policy realms.” Office of Science and Technology Policy blog, October 24, 2010. < house-council-launches-interagency-subcommittee-privacy-internet-policy>.

[2] <>.

[3] <>.



Roadmap: The US Department of Commerce and International Privacy Activities – Indifference and Neglect: Introduction and Summary of Findings


 Report home | Read the report (PDF) | Next section