This year, the Future of Privacy Forum celebrates its 10th anniversary and with it, achieves a milestone in the space of privacy leadership and scholarship. Founded in 2008, FPF serves as a nonprofit focused on the advancement of responsible data practices in support of emerging technologies, offering an independent space for voices in the privacy discussion to converge and establish workable solutions to balance the ever-increasing tension between technology and privacy.
Ten years ago, the Future of Privacy Forum began with two people at the helm. Fast forward to 2019, FPF now boasts nearly 30 employees, 170 member companies, a collection of academics and civil society members, and offices in Israel and soon, one in Europe.
Speaking to FPF Founder and Co-Chair Christopher Wolf, it was clear that the mission of the organization was set from inception.
“From the beginning, we wanted to be a middle of the road, centrist organization that advocates for the responsible use of data and that respects the privacy rights of individuals,” he said, adding that in order to achieve that, it was important that the FPF establish itself as an independent entity in control of its own course and future.
CEO Jules Polonetsky, CIPP/US, said that early on, there was an obvious gap in the center of the privacy debate. “We saw that there were trade groups representing industry interests and there were civil society groups advocating for consumer interests and there weren’t many, or any, places where those various groups could convene to try to hammer out practical agreements.”
While it wasn’t clear the exact direction FPF would take, demand for such an organization was clear from stakeholders. “We were already seeing the beginnings of tremendous growth in the industry and it was clear this was a community that would want to connect, talk, learn,” he said. Noting the collaborative nature of the field, Polonetsky added, "Companies may compete, civil society groups may litigate and debate, but at the end of the day, the people who are in the weeds of how data flows really work, and what the risks and opportunities are, really do want to learn from each other.”
As the privacy profession took off and senior-level data protection roles took shape worldwide, Polonetsky said there was a clear demand for a space where professionals could come together to work on policy issues and advocate for practical and responsible data protection practices. Over the next decade, the FPF would grow to meet that need and foster a space that afforded stakeholders the opportunity to meet, learn and focus on establishing responsible data practices.
The FPF's centrist position is not always the easiest to hold, Polonetsky said. "We are often pulling together negotiations, agreements and compromises that might be a tick more progressive than a trade group would like to go, but not as far as a privacy advocate wanted to achieve. We end up, very often, hammering out compromises which we feel move the ball forward, but you’ve got to have a thick enough skin to realize you cannot please everyone and get something done."
He attributes the success of the organization to its independence, its accomplishments achieved by the FPF's reputation for including views from diverse stakeholders.
IAPP Vice President and Chief Knowledge Officer Omer Tene said, "In just 10 years, the FPF catapulted to lead the policy discussion of consumer privacy and data protection at the cutting edge of new technologies and business models in Washington, the States and the EU. Supported by more than 150 companies, as well as research foundations including the National Science Foundation, the FPF has convened policymakers, regulators, academics and CPOs to produce new scholarship, white papers and self-regulatory principles. Its working groups have crafted best practices for a wide range of industries, including on facial recognition, smart cars and education technologies, which have been promoted by industry and policy leaders, including the former president of the U.S."
Having grown to cover areas including artificial intelligence and machine learning, big data, de-identification, connected cars and smart cities, Wolf said, “I’m really excited about the impact we are having on the governance of these issues and on emerging issues. On a personal level, it gives me enormous satisfaction to see how we are helping people get involved in the profession and grow and prosper in the profession.”
In addition to providing a collaborative space for policy discussion, the organization has grown to include a parade of fellows who have fostered their careers, established a collection of senior fellows to offer subject matter expertise, and honed in on education. With plans for expansion, Polonetsky said he is far more excited about FPF's potential now than ever before.
"When I started out, it was about cookies and tracking. Now, the kinds of advances we are beginning to see with AI, the real-world evidence in health care, the contribution of data — the stuff that was once of science fiction — is beginning to be a reality because of advances in tech and data,” Polonetsky said.
While the past decade has seen tremendous movement across both the privacy and technology space, Polonetsky said it can sometimes feel a bit like Groundhog Day.
“Some of the debates are old, and others, although they’re new, are the same concept,” he said, adding the real change has taken place in the regulatory space as there has been a shift away from select industry regulation and toward, one after another, sweeping privacy regulations being put in place across the states.
“There is greater consensus around the need for baseline privacy laws that can help us reach an agreement with key stakeholders, but there is plenty of room for disagreement about the details,” he said. What has changed, he added, is that it’s easier to get participation in and support for FPF's work. Illustrated by the number of companies, academics and public interest players involved, he said, “I think we have really carved out a unique role.”
While the future excites the FPF team, Polonetsky said, “The opportunities are exciting and the risks are actually starting to become significant problems as well. It's far more exciting today than it was 20 years ago, when there were all sorts of barriers to implementing these technologies.”
Both credit the success of the organization to one another. Wolf said, “It goes without saying but truly, our success would not have been possible without Jules and his imagination, his insights, his energy and his personal touch,” adding that the greatest contribution he made to FPF, besides having the idea to start the organization, was to hire Polonetsky as the first employee. “He has been an incredible colleague when it was just the two of us and an incredible leader of a huge staff now — others would say the same thing. A huge amount of credit goes to him for our success.”
The FPF will be hosting a 10th-anniversary celebration April 30, when the organization also plans to release a report on rising privacy issues and honor members of the community.
If you want to comment on this post, you need to login.