Federal Privacy Legislation Not Expected Anytime Soon: Experts

Congress is likely to spend most of this year debating the details of various privacy measures, so it's unlikely that a comprehensive privacy bill would be voted on anytime soon.

Despite the flurry of privacy bills that have been introduced in Congress recently, legal experts don't expect to see a comprehensive privacy-protection law being passed anytime soon.

There have been a lot of discussions about implementing the "Do Not Track" measure to give consumers a way to opt out of data tracking and to control what information is being collected by various Websites during the past few months. In response, several lawmakers have introduced comprehensive privacy legislation, including the "Do Not Track" bill from Sen. John D Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and the "privacy bill of rights" from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.)

Even with the broad bipartisan and popular support, these bills will likely linger for a few years as Congress hammers out the details, Jim Halpert, a partner at DLA Piper, told eWEEK. He expects the bills to take approximately four to five years to pass through the Senate.

"Something that has a significant impact on the economy in general tends to get kicked around Congress for a bit," said Halpert.

Congress is hesitant to pass a bill that could jeopardize the Internet economy. One or several online privacy bills would place restrictions on businesses, specifically what companies could do with customer data, Chris Wolf, a privacy attorney at Hogan Lovells, told eWEEK.

It's possible a targeted privacy law would emerge, instead of a broad consumer privacy law, said Wolf. A targeted law would focus on a specific area, similar to how there are security protections for children's privacy online, health care data and financial security, according to Wolf. However, Wolf did not consider the proposed "Do Not Track" bill in the House of Representatives an example of a targeted law because the possible implementation was still very broad.

"Everyone is talking about protecting all the data," said Wolf, who noted that there was little-to-no consensus on how this could be achieved. There are a lot of different opinions, and it would take time to address the issues.

To date, Congress has not passed a single piece of privacy legislation that covers all offline data. In addition, Wolf believes that the odds of passing one law for online data remain remote.

Just because the issue of online privacy is "popular" with the public doesn't necessarily mean that translates into its being a "high priority" on the legislative agenda, Halpert said. There is a lot of focus on privacy right now, thanks to several high-profile data breaches and concerns about mobile devices collecting location data, but there is no immediate crisis that would force Congress to move quickly, according to Halpert.

"They will pass privacy legislation in due time, but they are not in a hurry," Halpert said.

In contrast, there is an "increased chance" that there will be a comprehensive cyber-security law coming out of this session of Congress, according to Wolf. The cyber-security law would address the question of protecting the critical infrastructure and securing systems from cyber-attackers. On May 12, the Obama administration addressed some of the major points that were part of at least 50 distinct measures introduced last year. Of those 50 proposals, eight dealt with protecting critical infrastructure.

It is likely that Sen. Henry Reid (D-Nev.) will be reconciling the existing bills and the proposals to introduce a new harmonized version, according to Wolf.

There are more areas of consensus for cyber-security than currently exists for privacy legislation because the cyber-security bills are "not prescriptive," Wolf said. They tend to be process-oriented and focused on establishing a framework rather than defining what businesses have to do.

By the same token, Halpert thought the online piracy bill, PROTECT IP, introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), giving the Justice Department authority to take down Websites distributing or selling counterfeit items, would be more likely to reach the floor for debate and vote. There is broad industry support for the bill, from the recording companies, Hollywood and other "copyright owners," said Halpert.