The once-bright forecast for Congress to pass sweeping Internet privacy legislation is suddenly gloomy. The federal governments top privacy cop last week announced that he opposes it, and lawmakers who once championed stronger Internet privacy are poised instead to pass antiterrorism measures that would give the Department of Justice new cybersurveillance powers.
Its been a remarkably bad few weeks for those who have spent years bending politicians ears about the need for Internet privacy legislation.
First, the DOJ responded to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with a legislative package that would open nearly all communications, including those on the Internet, to broadened surveillance powers by law enforcement authorities.
The House Committee on the Judiciary last week passed its version of that bill, the Provide Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism (PATRIOT) Act of 2001. Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said he will put a similar proposal before the full Senate this week - meaning it could be sent to the president in a matter of days.
Among other things, the House version would give lawmakers broader authority to harvest Internet records - from e-mails to individuals travels through the World Wide Web to business records. It would also let authorities apply for wiretap orders under foreign surveillance intelligence rules, which are much less rigorous than the laws surrounding domestic intelligence gathering.
Details on the exact language in a Senate compromise were unavailable at press time, but privacy advocates said they feared it would go even further than the House version. Meanwhile, Federal Trade Commission Chairman Timothy Muris last week announced he would not support legislation girding Net privacy, a reversal in position from that of Robert Pitofsky, the previous FTC chairman. After conducting several surveys and holding hearings and workshops, Pitofsky concluded last year that legislation was required.
Muris said the time is not right. "The challenges for new legislation are daunting," he said during a speech in Cleveland. "It is too soon to conclude that we can fashion workable legislation."
Muris is a free-market advocate. His reluctance to impose new laws on businesses does not come as a great surprise to onlookers, particularly considering that Congress has shifted its focus to matters of national security and defense.
Still, Muris did call for significantly more FTC resources to be aimed at preventing privacy fraud online.
"I think its important because I think it says to Capitol Hill, Lets pause and try to make the laws we have on the books work, " said H. Robert Wientzen, CEO of the Direct Marketing Association.
One analyst, however, called Muris announcement "fuel for the fire" for more privacy legislation.
"He admitted it was a problem on a much larger scale than the previous administration," said John McCarthy, Forrester Researchs group director of politics and government research. "Hes adding more and more layers of what you can and cant do onto the issue, and hes made it very clear he will hold companies liable to whats on their privacy policies. Businesses may ultimately ask for some legislation. The only thing businesses hate more than legislation is confusion."