Congress readying privacy moves

By Jennifer Jones, InfoWorld |  Business

As Congress gears up to move on the simmering issue of online privacy, lawmakers on Thursday assembled a panel of constitutional and policy experts to map out the landscape.

The discussion marked the House of Representatives' first privacy hearing held during the new Congress and Bush administration.

At the hearing, key lawmakers made clear that they are ready to move beyond the industry's own attempts at self-regulating online privacy practices.

"Punting is good in football, but this committee is finished punting," said Billy Tauzin, the outspoken Louisiana Republican who chairs the full Committee on Energy and Commerce.

The hearing, which was held by the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, centered largely on the constitutional, legal and policy issues surrounding Congress' next moves and included several law professors.

"At least now we can discuss these issues without the fear that anything we would do on the privacy front will knock the air out of the Nasdaq," quipped Massachusetts Democrat Edward Markey, noting the current state of most Internet-related stocks.

At the same time experts counseled lawmakers to consider First Amendment issues and other issues swirling around the privacy debate.

"Whenever you start talking about having the government stop others from communicating about you, you invoke the First Amendment," noted Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA.

Along with considering broad new online privacy measures, discussion at the hearing also moved to the regulations now being formulated around health care and financial privacy initiatives enacted during the Clinton administration.

Of particular interest to subcommittee members was the new delay surrounding HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act).

Although HIPAA was enacted last year, regulations to be issued around HIPAA were put on hold recently by the Bush administration.

Several sources said the health care industry is lobbying intensely at the Health and Human Services Department to get relief from some of HIPAA's provisions.

Said Diana DeGette, D-Colo., "I've heard from many of my constituents in the health care industry that say the new regulations are too burdensome and the bar has been set too high."

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