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Gore pushes Net privacy

Vice President Al Gore calls for an "electronic bill of rights" to protect the privacy of individuals online.

Signaling impatience with the high-tech industry's privacy efforts, Vice President Al Gore today called for an "electronic bill of rights" to protect individuals online.

In a commencement speech at New York University, Gore also called for efforts to guard the privacy of medical records, encouraged attendance to a June privacy conference sponsored by the Commerce Department to focus on children's privacy, and said each federal agency must name a privacy officer to assure departments comply with existing laws.

In a related move, the Federal Trade Commission unveiled a privacy page dubbed "Roadmap to Consumer Privacy," where consumers can "opt out" of having personal data shared by credit bureaus and state departments of motor vehicles. The site also tells people how to remove their names from telemarketing and direct mail lists.

"Americans should have the right to choose whether their personal information is disclosed," Gore said in a statement. "They should have the right to know how, when, and how much of that information is being used, and they should have the right to see it themselves, to know if it's accurate."

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Privacy advocates praised Gore's call for an electronic bill of rights as giving high-level attention to the privacy issue, but they had mixed reactions on the specifics of his speech. Both the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) urged the formation of a new federal privacy agency.

The Direct Marketing Association pledged to support Gore's efforts, and industry group TRUSTe, working on a self-regulation scheme, warned that government involvement on privacy will increase "if industry does not start stepping up to the plate and doing something to address consumer needs on privacy."

Gore's privacy initiative is significant because the White House has said it would prefer that the private sector regulate itself on privacy while holding open the possibility of legislation or government regulation. Last month, Clinton's e-commerce czar, Ira Magaziner, said industry action has been inadequate.

By all counts, industry's action have been anemic. TRUSTe, which is the best-known private sector effort, has signed up about 125 Web sites to disclose privacy policies and pay to use the TRUSTe logo. Fifty joined in the last two months.

Federal agencies must report by July 1 on progress made on protecting online privacy and on other policies in Clinton's Framework for Global Electronic Commerce.

In urging Congress to protect the privacy of medical records, Gore underscored the administration's support for legislation to limit when and how medical records can be used; to let individuals correct their own medical records; and to give patients access to their own records.

Gore also said the president has directed each agency to review their existing privacy practices, but EPIC's Marc Rotenberg said federal departments are required to do that under a 1988 law.

"Privacy as an issue has been overlooked by the administration, and now they're giving it some attention," said Rotenberg, whose organization wants new privacy protection laws. "We think that an agency, not a big and bureaucratic one but one that's lean and focused, could be very useful. We still think consumers are looking at too many burdens in protecting privacy."

Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for the CDT, echoed the call for a new federal privacy agency.

"Privacy has been identified as one of the top consumer and individual liberty concerns in this new information age," Mulligan said. "We are at a point where this piecemeal approach leaves us in a rather precarious position."

Two industry groups backed Gore's privacy initiative but emphasized the need to avoid government regulation.

"The vice president outlined many initiatives that the Internet industry has already begun to formulate, and this public challenge is a welcome sign to many in our industry," Jeff Richards, executive director of the Interactive Services Association, which represents consumer-oriented online companies, said in a statement.

"We stand firmly behind the administration's commitment to industry self-regulation," Robert Wientzen, chief executive of the Direct Marketing Association, a trade group for direct mail and telemarketing firms, said in a statement. "The administration has stated, and we agree, that legislation will seriously hamper the development of online commerce and, in fact, will not be enforceable."