Internet

U.S. on defensive at global privacy summit

The U.S. policy of industry self-regulation for privacy comes under fire from attendees representing five continents at a privacy summit in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON--The U.S. policy of industry self-regulation for privacy came under fire from attendees representing five continents at a privacy summit here today.

Conference organizer Gary Clayton, chief executive of the Privacy Council, opened the conference by saying there is a woeful lack of U.S. presence at global privacy summits, and it is important to bring U.S. policy-makers and businesses into the debate.

Part of the reticence of the United States globally, however, has been that policy-makers have supported a model of industry self-regulation in contrast to the policies of most governments abroad. European Parliament member Pat Cox of Ireland said at the summit that self-regulation "was a good place to start," but he acknowledged his opinion was a minority in the European Commission.

Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., drew favorable comparisons between the commission's regulations, which mandate privacy protections adopted earlier this year, and his own proposals, which include mandates that each Web site post its privacy policy and that consumers have the ability to opt out of giving any information.

"There's a growing consensus in the Internet industry...supporting this approach," Boucher said in a keynote address. He noted his minimal privacy requirements would permit Web sites with more aggressive policies to tout that fact and would help "consumers gain confidence" in online transactions.

Consumer confidence is the mantra of the Privacy Council, host of the summit and a group that encourages businesses to adopt privacy policies voluntarily. The group released a survey by Fabrizio McLaughlin & Associates showing that among consumers who don't shop online, 61 percent cited privacy concerns as a main deterrent.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., who with Boucher is the co-chairman of the House Internet Caucus, defended the U.S. policy. Goodlatte noted that along with industry self-regulation, Congress has passed privacy laws protecting children as well as medical and financial records.

"Targeted federal action" combined with self-regulation is the proper approach, he said.

Both Goodlatte and Boucher predicted that little on privacy would happen in Congress in the remainder of this year, but that it would be a hot topic in the opening days of the next Congress beginning in January.

The summit began a day after Government Accounting Office reports lambasted federal government Web sites for poor privacy protection and security.

Among high-profile appearances canceled today were those of Vice President Al Gore and Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., although conference organizers said they hoped to reschedule McCain for tomorrow.