Key lawmakers predict passage of privacy law

By Patrick Thibodeau, Computerworld |  Business

Two key lawmakers today predicted that Congress will likely approve online privacy legislation this year, in part to protect consumers from so-called "bad actors" -- companies that fail to subscribe to voluntary privacy practices.

"I believe that significant privacy legislation is going to be sent to the president this year, and the debate is not, 'Is it going to be sent to the president?' The debate is, 'What is it going to look like?'" said U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) at a public policy forum here today.

The chairman of the powerful House Commerce Committee, Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), also predicted that legislation will be passed, perhaps within eight months. "We're gearing up and organizing to take on this issue," said Tauzin.

Both Tauzin and Wyden, speaking at a forum sponsored by high-tech public policy group TechNet of Palo Alto, Calif., and the National Venture Capital Association based in Arlington, Va., said legislation will be needed to compel companies that refuse to participate in voluntary privacy schemes to nonetheless protect consumer privacy.

That could be achieved by writing legislation that includes a "safe-harbor" provision exempting companies from having to follow any federal rules provided they subscribe to self-regulatory principles on privacy, under a scheme outlined by Tauzin and Wyden. Once a company posts a privacy policy, violations could be subject to U.S. Federal Trade Commission enforcement.

Tauzin also wants to ensure that federal Web sites adhere to privacy practices. A study conducted by the General Accounting Office last year concluded that many government Web sites didn't follow FTC fair information practices.

Tauzin said that any privacy legislation may have to deal with the problems of "multiple jurisdictions," or the possibility of a patchwork of state and federal privacy laws. The AeA, a trade group formerly known as the American Electronics Association, this week urged lawmakers to adopt privacy rules that would pre-empt state privacy laws -- a stance that's opposed by a group of privacy advocates and other organizations.

But Bob Herbold, Microsoft Corp.'s executive vice president and chief operating officer, who also spoke at the forum, urged continued self-regulatory efforts. He said the industry is deploying tools, such as the Platform for Privacy Preferences Project (P3P), that customers can trust to protect their privacy.

"We think it's better that companies like Microsoft, and others in this industry, provide those tools as opposed to dealing with burdensome legislation," he said.

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