At privacy conference, government regulation starts to look inevitable

By Patrick Thibodeau, Computer World |  Security

WASHINGTON -- The most telling moment of this week's Global Privacy Summit here came in the final hour of the conference today when one of the participants, U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) member Mozelle W. Thompson, asked the large audience of businesses representatives and privacy advocates a simple question: How many believe online privacy legislation is inevitable? A sea of hands were raised.

There was little doubt among most participants that comprehensive online data privacy legislation will arrive soon. And although many businesses are continuing to press for self-regulation, there were some corporate executives -- such as Bill Catucci, executive vice president of Atlanta-based credit reporting giant Equifax Inc. in Atlanta -- who now view government regulation as one of the main pieces of the overall data-privacy picture.

Catucci said there's a need "to strike a balance" between a company's need for information and a consumer's right to privacy. Achieving that will take a three-part solution, he added: self-regulation, government regulation and consumer empowerment, which Catucci said may involve giving them the ability to keep their personal data private.

The government, Catucci said, should support companies that practice reasonable "cyber principles" and impose sanctions on those that refuse to subscribe to them.

For its part, the FTC already is pushing Congress to enact legislation regarding online privacy, although lawmakers aren't expected to take action on the issue until next year at the earliest. "I think that there should be some baseline, and for companies that are doing the right thing, the ones that actually say and practice what they preach about protecting information, they [will] have nothing to worry about," Thompson said.

But what worries Steve Emmert, director of government affairs at Reed Elsevier Inc., the London-based firm that owns the Lexis-Nexis information service, is the potential effect that the political process may have on any future laws. "What seems to strike a fair balance is very much at risk, and it's at risk because of a lot of the political forces involved," he said.

Simson Garfinkel, a privacy advocate and author of the book Database Nation, said it's disingenuous for a company such as Lexis-Nexis to criticize privacy legislation in the U.S. because it already operates in Canada and Europe, "where there are rules that say personal information is going to be respected."

In response, Emmert said Reed Elsevier isn't opposed to privacy legislation. "One of things we have been very concerned with, however, is how you get there," Emmert added. He said the company has worked closely with several self-industry regulatory initiatives "to try to make sure that we can establish baseline protections ý that do in fact allow you to balance" consumer and business interests.

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