Industry giants to weigh in on US privacy laws

By , IDG News Service |  Legal, eBay, HP

A group of U.S. companies, led by technology giants Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and eBay, is set to outline recommendations for new federal data-privacy legislation that could make life easier for consumers and lead to a standard federal breach-notification law.

The recommendations, which were developed by a group of industry players called the Consumer Privacy Legislative Forum, are set to be released at an upcoming privacy conference six weeks from now, according to Peter Cullen, Microsoft's chief privacy officer.

The companies have been working for the past three years to encourage the adoption of federal consumer data-privacy laws and to answer the question of what federal legislation should look like, Cullen said in an interview. Other forum members include Google, Oracle, Procter & Gamble and Eli Lilly.

One idea is that laws should make it easier for consumers to understand what they're getting into when they share their personal data with Web sites, Cullen said. "The whole focus on consent really puts an unfair burden on the consumer," he said. "My mom doesn't know what an IP address is."

The recommendations will cover rules around data use and the ability of consumers to correct inaccurate data. And they will cover data breach notification, which is now covered by a patchwork of state laws.

Simplifying breach-notification laws by creating a single federal standard is important, Cullen said Wednesday while speaking at a discussion of privacy policy in San Francisco. "It's not that there is no privacy law. There's actually too much privacy law," he said. "If you think about data-breach notification laws just as an example, there are 38 state laws, many of them very different."

"We need to think about much more of a framework approach."

Congress has passed some laws covering consumer data privacy, such as the 1996 Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), but existing laws do not comprehensively cover consumer privacy in general.

Bills have been proposed, but they have all died in committee or on the House floor, said Ari Schwartz, chief operating officer with the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a public policy advocacy group.

Schwartz said he expects new legislation to be put forward again this year. Whether it will pass is another question. "By the end of this year we'll be able to determine whether this Congress can deal with it," he said. "There's a lot going on right now because of the economy, but there are members who have said they want to see privacy legislation."

Although CDT was a charter member of the Consumer Privacy Legislative Forum, the group dropped out about six months after its creation when members decided to focus on working with industry rather than public interest groups, Schwartz said. The split was amicable, he said.

"They're people that are clearly committed to legislation," he said. "A lot of them put their necks out to support it at a time when it would not be as popular as it would be right now."

One academic who follows the topic said it's significant that the industry has agreed in principle that there should be some sort of baseline privacy law.

"That's interesting, because prior to 2006 these groups were pumping money into the libertarian machine, and now the tune is a bit different and more open to different options," Chris Hoofnagle, director of the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology's information privacy programs, said via e-mail.

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