Bush Faces His First Privacy Challenge

By Todd R. Weiss, Computerworld |  Business

George W. Bush has been president since only Saturday, but there's already a battle brewing for his attention between groups wanting federal regulations for online privacy.

In a letter sent last week to Bush, congressional leaders and various other federal and state government officials, a group of 17 organizations ranging from the Chicago-based American Library Association to the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), proposed a privacy-protection framework that they they hope will be enacted early this year.

The proposal by Washington-based EPIC and its allies coincides -- and potentially conflicts -- with another proposal made last week by the American Electronics Association (AEA). The technology industry trade group listed eight privacy principles it wants Congress to consider as it mulls privacy-related legislation.

Among the steps that EPIC and its supporters are seeking is the implementation and enforcement of so-called Fair Information Practices, which would require companies to give individuals access to the personal information collected by Web sites. The supporters also proposed that Internet users be given the ability to correct erroneous information and to limit the use of the data that companies gather.

The groups are also asking for the creation of a special commission to address privacy issues as they arise. The framework would limit new surveillance technologies and allow each state to develop its own laws, which could include potentially broader protections than federal regulations would provide.

But such controls are seen as overkill by trade groups such as the AEA. The Washington-based group has reversed its earlier position, saying it's now willing to accept federal privacy legislation but is lobbying Congress to be sure that federal laws would preempt any state privacy laws.

The AEA does favor provisions for Internet users to have "opt-out" mechanisms, which prevent any information users provide to a company from being used for purposes other than those that have been specified up front.

Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., a privacy firm in Green Brook, N.J., and one of the groups that joined the EPIC letter, said the AEA approach is weak. "The principles that they're recommending to Congress have more to do with preventing privacy than providing it," he said.

But AEA spokesman Marc Brailov defended the trade group's proposal as the best way to protect both individual Internet users and e-commerce businesses without saddling the latter group with excessive regulations. "Our approach is balanced and reasoned," he said.

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