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Legislators renew push for privacy rules

A bipartisan group of lawmakers presents an outline for a national consumer-privacy bill, just days after a federal agency downplayed the need for such a law.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Friday presented an outline for a national consumer-privacy bill, just days after a federal agency downplayed the need for such a law.

Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla.; Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va.; Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va.; and Billy Tauzin, R-La.; endorsed a draft of standards designed to protect consumers' privacy online and offline. The framework for legislation would add teeth to voluntary self-regulation efforts, which currently encourage but do not require companies to provide notice and choice about their data-collection practices, Boucher said.

"Self-regulation is helpful when companies are willing to participate, but there are always going to be companies that don't. Our legislation is designed to ensure that all Web sites that collect information from Internet users protect the privacy of those visiting the Web site," Boucher said in an interview.

The bill is expected to be introduced later this year or in early 2002.

Designs for a bill come as the recently appointed chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Timothy Muris, says he will not encourage new privacy laws and will instead focus on enforcing existing policies. In a speech last week, he reversed the agency's position, which previously supported enacting legislation that would let people control the way their personal information could be shared among businesses online and off.

Anti-terrorist legislation has take precedence over privacy bills since the Sept. 11 attacks on New York's World Trade Center and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and Muris' stance could further hinder new privacy proposals.

Muris cited a lack of consensus among lawmakers for privacy rules as reason for maintaining the status quo. He also said new laws could be costly at a time when the industry faces an economic downturn.

But lawmakers behind the proposed legislation say that a new measure could promote electronic trade by assuaging consumer fears about privacy leaks on the Internet.

"There is a growing level of concern among the public about the practices of Web sites that collect information through the use of cookies or Web bugs--much of which is done surreptitiously," Boucher said. "The prevalence of these practices is to some extent making people reluctant to engage in electronic commerce, and we need to give the American public greater assurance that private information is private. The effect will be further growth and development of the Internet."

Ken Johnson, spokesman for Tauzin and the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Tauzin and the committee do not agree with the FTC's position. The House Committee oversees the Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee, which has held six hearings on privacy since last spring, providing the basis for the new guidelines.

"We believe that we need an affirmative privacy policy in place for the protection of personal information with regard to commercial entities," Johnson said. "But we're not talking about sweeping legislation; we're patching holes in the dike. We've seen leaks pop up in various ways (with industry self-regulation), and we're looking for a way to plug those leaks, to deal with the bad actors in the marketplace."

Stearns, chairman of the protection subcommittee, outlined a draft of safeguards at the press conference that would be the basis for new legislation. Under the guidelines, companies would be required to give Internet consumers notice of what information is collected about them, say how that information is used, and provide consumers with the ability to opt out of having their data shared with third parties. The provisions would not give consumers the right to take action against a company, but instead give the FTC power to enforce the rules.

"The safeguards would become a national policy and supersede conflicting or inconsistent state law requirements. This would be a floor of privacy assurance but would not constitute a ceiling," said Boucher, who expects the legislation to draw broad support from legislators and the industry.

Boucher, who has introduced privacy bills in the past, added: "The time was simply not right for (privacy legislation) before. The time has now arrived."