Congress navigates a flood of Net privacy bills
(IDG) -- The parade of Internet-related legislation has begun, with introductions averaging one bill each day since Congress convened. But this may be the year that a privacy measure actually passes.
Internet privacy is emerging as a primary issue of cyberspace-related legislation, say some Congress members and observers. This year, the difference is that many lawmakers are familiar with the issues, and they've already dealt with some of the details in bills introduced (but not approved) last session.
Congress members proposed more than 400 bills on Internet issues in their last session; 27 bills focusing on Web concerns have entered the legislative hopper in the first six weeks of the current session. Topics include creating technology education programs, keeping the Internet tax-free, blocking unsolicited e-mail, and protecting young surfers.
The Web privacy bills with the greatest chance of actually becoming law are yet to be introduced, some observers say. For example, proposals from the Senate Commerce Committee are taken more seriously than many others, says Ari Schwartz, an analyst for the Center for Democracy and Technology, who frequently testifies on tech issues. Those bills are better developed because they have already been proposed and debated, he says.
"Last year, bills were introduced as discussion acts and no one really thought they'd move," Schwartz says. As a representative of a citizens' advocacy group, he is following several privacy regulation bills this session.
However, Internet privacy concerns are affecting increasing numbers of people, which Congress cannot ignore, notes Peter Sheffield, a spokesperson for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Internet privacy falls under this committee's jurisdiction, and Sheffield says many hearings involve experts helping members to get up to speed on the topic.
The Opt-in Controversy
One hotbed of tech discussion is the Senate Communications Subcommittee, which oversees many telecommunications and Internet issues. Committee chair Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Montana, includes Web infrastructure and privacy issues on his agenda.
"We've been dealing with privacy issues for years, it's just that now people really seem to care about it," says Ben O'Connell, Burns's press secretary.
Sen. Burns previously introduced a comprehensive online privacy bill and expects to soon reintroduce the privacy legislation he originally proposed in April 1999, O'Connell says. That bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, would establish an opt-out system of e-commerce so consumers would have to click to stop Web sites from collecting their personal information.
Opt-in versus opt-out is central to the debate over Internet privacy legislation. Consumer protection groups typically endorse an opt-in standard, making privacy the default. An opt-in system automatically protects consumers who do not specifically allow data to be compiled about them. Most business interests back opt-out, arguing it doesn't disrupt the flow of e-commerce.
"This year is different from last year because now committee members know what opt-in and opt-out mean," O'Connell says. "And the Burns bill is great middle ground in that debate. When the two extremes sit down and are forced to work out a compromise they'll see, 'Wow, there is already one here.'"
Resurrecting Previous Pitches
The success of any privacy legislation, however, may ultimately be a matter of politics. The fact that Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairs the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which handles most of these Internet privacy bills, may give McCain's own proposals an edge. What's more, his bill has gathered support from the technology industry.
"The McCain bill is a very serious proposal. AOL, Disney, Hewlett-Packard all backed it last year," notes Schwartz, of the Center for Democracy and Technology. This business-friendly bill would set an opt-out standard.
It's mirrored in the House with legislation recently introduced by Rep. Anna Eshoo, D-California. She and Rep. Chris Cannon, R-Utah, introduced legislation virtually identical to McCain's Senate proposal, which could speed up the lawmaking process by allowing simultaneous debate in both houses.
Also expected to reappear is an Internet privacy bill introduced last May by Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-South Carolina. The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Consumer's Union support this measure, which combines opt-in and opt-out principles. The default is for privacy (opt-in) for specific personal details such as Social Security numbers, financial data, or health information, according to Andy Davis, Hollings's communications director. But opt-out is permitted when sites gather marketing and demographic information that paints a general portrait of a user, such as age group or salary range.
"This is where the debate is, opt-in or opt-out," Davis says. "The industry wants self-regulation and others say opt-in should be for everything."
Progress, But Resolution?
While privacy remains a hot issue, Schwartz says people haven't decided about such issues. He still hasn't seen a serious discussion about how consumers and companies feel about opt-in/opt-out.
"It's too early to say whether an Internet privacy bill will be passed this year," says the representative of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "It depends on other agenda issues like tax and campaign finance that need to be settled first. It's on the radar screen; some have even said it is the radar screen, but I don't think that's so," Schwartz says. And some technology insiders agree.
The Bush administration hasn't taken a stand on the issue yet. Its proposals could shift the status.
"The administration hasn't sent clear signals as to what approach they favor," says Jeff Richards, executive director of the Internet Alliance, an online industry trade association.
"Everyone is on the cusp of beginning to understand what consumers really feel about the issue," Richards adds. "Early in Congress [sessions], there is less drive in passing legislation because there are other priorities."
Technology itself also can affect legislative discussion. The availability of software tools that let consumers control their privacy online may convince Congress it doesn't need to hurry with legislation.
"I predict that technology will outpace lawmaking, and that's a good thing," Richards says.
Congress is unlikely to back off entirely, notes Sheffield, representing the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
"Congress has become more educated about privacy concerns over the past year, but the learning curve is slower on the hill," Sheffield says. "They move, probably for the better, at a deliberative pace. These are complex issues that they can't quick-stamp, and Congress is looking forward trying to protect consumers while not impeding business."
As for which bills stand the best chance of making it through committee, Sheffield says, "Everything has a fair shot right now, I don't know of any particular poison that would kill any of these bills."
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