Congress Readies For Privacy Fight

 
 
By eweek  |  Posted 2001-01-29
 
 
 

Capitol hill is gearing up to tackle the online privacy issue once again — and this time there appears to be more resolve to get a law passed.

Legislation will start moving "very soon," Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., told a room full of Silicon Valley executives during a recent speech in Washington, D.C. The chairman of the House Commerce Committee said that if a disturbing breach of privacy occurs before there is a federal law, it could compel lawmakers to pass something onerous.

Instead of rolling the dice and waiting, he urged the assembled members of TechNet to get behind a piece of less burdensome legislation now.

At the same meeting, he was seconded by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who warned that the threat of an Exxon Valdez of privacy involving a "bad actor" could tarnish all online merchants — including those working hard to be fair and honest in the privacy realm.

"I believe significant legislation will be sent to the president this year," Wyden said. "The debate isnt if it will be sent; its what it will look like."

Privacy experts expect Congress will fashion some kind of pro-consumer privacy bill, though details are few at this point.

The recent surprise about-face by the AeA, formerly the American Electronics Association, which now supports a federal privacy law, gave federal privacy legislation the important imprimatur of industry.

The AeA reasons that, without a federal law to pre-empt state laws, e-commerce will get saddled with a dizzying patchwork of different regulations, which together would be daunting to understand and costly to navigate.

"Were looking ahead, at the fact that state legislatures are considering 300 or more pieces of privacy legislation," said Mark Brailov, a spokesman at the industry association.

Similarly, the National Association of Attorneys General last year held a meeting championing privacy as a major priority this year. The move helped persuade the AeA to modify its position on the issue, said Scott Cooper, manager of technology policy at Hewlett-Packard.

The AeAs position represents a "tremendous amount of naiveté," said Jeffrey Eisenach, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation. "Taking the first step down this path is taking us down a slippery slope. . . . They are setting themselves up to be Charlie Brown with Lucy pulling the football."

Powerful industry forces, including Microsoft and the Direct Marketing Association, are staunchly against any federal privacy intervention and insist that companies can adequately self-regulate.

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