Online privacy law anticipated

www.infoworld.com |  Business

WASHINGTON - DESPITE uncertainty in the outcome of the 2000 presidential election, privacy advocates expect the next Congress to pass a law providing basic protections for consumer privacy online.

A general-purpose online privacy law would affect all Web sites run by U.S. companies and nonprofit organizations, and it could require significant investments in network security, database management, and auditing systems, experts say.

"Whether Bush or Gore is elected makes very little difference on this issue," says Christine Varney, a former commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission and a partner at Hogan & Hartson. "We have a two-year Congress that is very committed to getting itself re-elected ... Privacy legislation will happen."

"Privacy is high on the list of bipartisan bills with support in both houses," agrees Jerry Berman, executive director of the Center for Democracy and Technology. "There is a chance to do something that is both bipartisan and balanced."

Berman and Varney made their remarks at a conference on privacy and business held this week.

Privacy advocates expect the 107th Congress to pass an online privacy law that includes such principals as notice, choice, access, and integrity. Notice means Web site operators must explicitly notify consumers about personal information being gathered and how that information is used. Choice means consumers can opt-out of information collection. Access means consumers can see the information gathered about them and correct errors. Integrity means Web site operators must ensure that consumer information is protected from unauthorized use.

An online privacy law also would include enforcement mechanisms such as fines. The FTC wants to be the government agency that enforces a general-purpose online privacy law, as it does an existing law governing Web sites for children.

"The Internet will not evolve to its full potential unless privacy is protected," FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky says. Pitofsky says that 97% of U.S. Web sites collect personally identifiable information from consumers, but only 20% of those Web sites provide notice, choice, access, and integrity.

"We can't rely entirely on the free market and self regulation," he asserts.

Privacy advocates want a federal online privacy law to include a preemption clause to ensure that it overrules related state laws. They also want to prevent class action lawsuits being filed against Web site operators for privacy violations. However, these two demands are controversial and may not gain bipartisan support in Congress, experts say.

Berman warned privacy advocates not to kill a good online privacy bill because it isn't perfect. At a minimum, he says, a federal law should require notice and choice.

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