Faced with mounting public pressure to enforce stricter online privacy protections, Vice President Al Gore is expected tomorrow to call for new laws to deter identity theft and to prohibit the collection of data from children on the Net.
Aiming to quell conflicts with a European Union privacy directive that goes into effect this fall, the White House initiative also is expected to oppose the creation of a universal identification number for medical records, according to sources, and announce the creation of a federal privacy liaison.
In addition, the administration wants to see a state-federal task force set up to deal with privacy and public records, since many of the commercial databases that sell and distribute sensitive personal information get their data from the government.
The growth of the Internet and electronic databases may make life and business transactions more convenient, but they also stand to compromise personal privacy in the absence of adequate protections. Consumers, privacy advocates, and European countries have challenged the White House and Congress to adopt policies that prevent abuses and give people the right to control their information.
Until now, the administration has endorsed industry self-regulation to help shield online privacy. In May, Gore pushed an "electronic bill of rights" to protect individuals online, although the principles were not backed up with action.
The new initiative still might not be enough to satisfy critics or meet the standards set by European countries.
"I think they are simply avoiding the tough issues. This doesn't address the EU directive," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC).
"The tough issues are establishing legal protections for privacy on the Internet and reforming the [export] controls on encryption," he added. Encryption secures digital communication and can't be cracked without a person's private key.
Last week, FTC Commission Robert Pitofsky went one step further and said if industry self-regulation failed, then a law should be passed to shield all online users' information. The White House is not expected to embrace this proposal, however.
"In the kids-under-13 area, we've seen a fair amount of agreement on all sides, so the administration is taking that consensus-building that has happened and going to the bank," said Deirdre Mulligan, a staff attorney for the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT).
"They are putting the stakes in the ground. In every case they are not creating a legislative push, which is an easy way out," she added. "We don't think addressing children's issues is enough. We want the FTC to be given new authority to establish appropriate privacy protections for adults and kids."
Regarding the creation of a privacy liaison, advocates say the value depends on who the person is and how much influence they have on the White House.
The privacy adviser is expected to be placed in the Office Information and Regulatory Affairs within the Office of Management and Budget.
"The question is, what kind of power and resources do they have and who is it?" Mulligan added. "They have to be technology-savvy and have a knowledge of privacy and international affairs."
Still, privacy activists praised the White House for taking a stance about electronic privacy.
"The big news is that the vice president is going to say there should not be a national patient record number established until medical privacy protections are in place," Rotenberg added. "I give them credit for that."