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Armey applies privacy brakes

Pointing to shortcomings of government Web sites, the House majority leader warns that hasty online-privacy legislation could lead to charges of hypocrisy.

WASHINGTON--The man who decides which bills will be considered on the House floor said Monday that any online-privacy bill is likely to do more harm than good.

In a letter to his House colleagues, Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, said Congress must avoid "silver-bullet solutions that will quickly become obsolete or leave ourselves vulnerable to criticism that the government is not meeting the standards it requires from others."

"I don't want strangers poking around in my business any more than they want me poking around in theirs," he wrote. But "a legislative or regulatory solution may be the slowest and least effective way to address consumer concerns."

Armey's letter comes mere months after House and Senate leaders of both parties vowed to draft and pass an online-privacy bill this year. But over those months, momentum for such a bill seems to have faded even as Congress has begun to hold nearly weekly hearings on the subject. Trade organizations that historically had supported self-regulation and found themselves accepting the inevitability of legislation were among the first to notice the slowdown, resulting partly because there are almost as many potential legislative solutions to online privacy as there are members of Congress.

"It's very tricky to legislate in this area," said H. Robert Wientzen, president of the Direct Marketing Association (DMA). Although he said DMA could support targeted bills on topics such as medical privacy, he doubted "any omnibus legislation could make sense."

Online-privacy advocates weren't prepared to give up the fight just because of Armey's opposition, however.

"We have an uphill battle," admitted Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) and a member of the Privacy Coalition. "But all this shows is that the (corporate) agenda has been adopted by the House leadership, which we already knew."

Living in glass houses
Armey said he wasn't advocating that government do nothing about online privacy, only that it focus on ensuring that its own Web sites are secure first. He cited a recent study by the General Accounting Office that found 97 percent of all federal Web sites failed "to meet the very (privacy) standards (the Federal Trade Commission) had asked Congress to impose on everyone else."

"Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones," Armey wrote. "And right now, the federal government's online house is made of pretty thin glass."

"He's trying to deflect the issue" with a focus on government sites, Mierzwinski said. "The government and the private sector are both invading our privacy...We need to deal with both."

Scrambling for Privacy Armey's argument echoed that of the DMA's Wientzen, who said that although some Web sites are not adhering to the self-regulatory policies promoted by Truste and others, the private sector "has had a much bigger success (advancing privacy) than the government's been able to do."

Mierzwinski held out hope that a comprehensive privacy bill could be passed in 2001. "I think we still could do it," he said, "but it will be hard."

Spam on the plate
The first privacy-related bill likely to fall under Armey's consideration for a floor vote is an antispam bill by Reps. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., and Gene Green, D-Texas. The bill has already cleared the House Commerce Committee and awaits action in the Judiciary Committee.

Last year Armey allowed a similar bill to go to the House floor, and it passed with a 427-1 vote. This year might be different, however, as Wilson has added language allowing Internet service providers to set their own spam policies even if contrary to federal law.

The DMA continues to oppose the Wilson-Green bill, even though Wilson says she has made several modifications in an attempt to appease the group.

"We don't want to create an environment where ISPs have absolute control over what is acceptable and what is not acceptable," Wientzen said.