Congress examines hot-button Net privacy issue

Representatives meet to gain a broader understanding of the underpinnings of information privacy, subject of more than a dozen bills before Congress this year.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
3 min read
Lawmakers and policy advisers convened Thursday at a hearing to examine privacy issues for the first time during the 107th Congress.

A subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce met in Washington, D.C., to gain a broader understanding of the underpinnings of information privacy, a hot-button issue among lawmakers that is the subject of more than a dozen bills before Congress this year.

The subcommittee's hearing, titled "Privacy in the Commercial World," was designed as an educational primer for legislators preparing to consider such bills. "People from all sectors agree that privacy is an issue that is much more ripe in this Congress, so you need to educate everybody before acting," said Pete Scheffeld, a committee spokesman.

Billy Tauzin, R-La., the chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, underscored the same message in an opening statement: "Before we have great debates of how to fix the current situation, we must understand the current situation and the constraints we are bound by."

Thursday's hearing was the first on consumer privacy this year and jump-starts a busy time for politicians. Last fall, bipartisan representatives from the House and Senate vowed that 2001 would be the year that an online privacy law would be passed. But critics say that politicians will most likely run into opposition from Internet companies whose business models are built on the unfettered collection of customer information. Such profiling practices by Internet companies greatly contributed to heightened sensitivity surrounding consumer privacy--and the resulting bills before Congress.

In a separate hearing Thursday, the Congressional Privacy Caucus, a bipartisan effort to educate members of Congress about individual privacy, will meet to hear from privacy experts about the perils of online surveillance technology. Richard Smith, chief privacy officer for the Denver-based Privacy Foundation, plans to outline the threats to consumer privacy through e-mail wiretapping and Web bugs--which are undetectable files used by marketers to trace consumers' activities on the Net or via e-mail.

In the House subcommittee meeting, members will also consider previous privacy laws enacted by Congress, such as laws to protect children's information on the Net, and how they play into future laws. "Before we add new law, we must examine the old as the heavy hand of government often takes a broad swipe when invited in," said Tauzin.

"One thing that I don't want to do...is hand the bulk of the work over to regulators.

"We have seen countless examples of what Federal agencies can do when provided a broad brush by Congress to regulate an issue...Punting is sometimes appropriate in football; it may not be the best course of action on this matter," he said.

Those who testified at the hearing included Eugene Volokh, law professor at the UCLA School of Law; Solveig Singleton, senior policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute; and Marc Rotenberg, executive director at the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).

Rotenberg, who advocates baseline legislation to protect consumer privacy, said in his testimony: "There is no doubt that the First Amendment and the right of privacy do at times collide. The success of the U.S. legal system is to preserve both interests, to safeguard free expression and to protect individual privacy."