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Net privacy debate sizzles

Critical decisions in the next three weeks will influence who protects consumer privacy on the Net-- the government or the industry.

The Internet privacy debate has heated up in the last month, and it's only going to get hotter.

Critical decisions in the next three weeks will influence whether the government will require privacy protections or whether the Internet industry will buy a little more time to try to protect consumer privacy on its own.

The big surprise: It's not too late for the private sector and particularly Internet companies to influence the outcome. In my last privacy column in March, I figured legislation was certain because of abysmal industry action on effective self-regulation.

Industry remains confused about the difference between self-regulation and no government regulation. Last June, our industry argued before the world and in front of the Federal Trade Commission for self-regulation, not new laws. They bought the line.

So far, we have wimpy privacy principles but no teeth to enforce them. That's not good enough for consumers, lawmakers, or ourselves.

I have consistently supported self-regulation efforts like TRUSTe, but the truth is, TRUSTe is toothless. To win the TRUSTe logo, a Web site must post its privacy policy and that's about it.

In theory, I could post a privacy policy that says, "We collect as much information as possible about site visitors, then sell that information, including email addresses, to the most obnoxious spammers we can find," and still qualify for a TRUSTe logo.

Would that build consumer trust in TRUSTe? Of course not, and that's the weakness of toothless self-regulation.

Government privacy legislation is certain--the only issue is how much. The lousy record of child-oriented Web sites, documented in this month's FTC report, assures that new laws to protect child privacy on the Net will be passed. A key Commerce Department official reinforced that point in a NEWS.COM interview last week.

Anybody want to argue against protecting kids? How many legislators up for election in November will vote against a bill to guard kid privacy on the Net?

Another certainty: Legislation to guard privacy of an individual's medical records online. VP Gore wants it, docs want it, patients want it--it's a done deal.

We should back both pieces of legislation. I'm frankly torn between justifying that position as a smart political move (it is) or as a good idea (it probably is). When the two converge, the right course is clear.

The privacy debate in Washington, will come to a head June 23-24 at Commerce Department hearings. Expect activity both from industry and privacy groups that have been urging regulation for years.

Those hearings are politically important. When he announced the hearings last month, Vice President Gore also advocated an "electronic bill of rights." His office is reportedly lining up speakers.

Also, July 1 is the deadline for a year-after progress report on Clinton's Framework for Global Electronic Commerce, which urged self-regulation on privacy and other matters.