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Panel explores privacy agency

A Clinton administration task force outlines various options to strengthen online privacy, including a possible regulatory agency.

The Clinton administration has released a draft report outlining various options to strengthen online privacy without stifling electronic commerce, including the possible formation of a regulatory agency.

The report was written by the Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) created by Vice President Al Gore in the fall of 1993. Entitled "Options for Promoting Privacy," the paper aims to strike a balance between "personal privacy and freedom of information in the digital environment."

"As we have observed, the United States lacks a centralized entity either to drive development of federal data privacy policy or direct traffic for the various privacy initiatives now under way," the draft states. "One option is to create a federal privacy entity to achieve and maintain the optimal balance between the benefits and harms associated with the unrestrained flow of personal data in the Information Age."

Such an entity could be a central agency without regulatory authority, according to the draft, or a nongovernmental or advisory body to oversee private issues.

But the paper goes on to say that the creation of a federal regulatory authority may not be the best solution. "First, a centralized approach is inconsistent with our traditional sectoral approach to privacy protection. A one-size-fits-all alternative may not be sufficiently responsive to the sector-specific implication of a particular information practice."

The draft was released Friday and is open for public comment until June 27. Task force representatives from federal agencies, such as Commerce Department, will work with the private sector to develop information and telecommunications technologies policies.

The task force paper lays out "privacy principles" that will shape future policy affecting electronic collection of personal data, stating that online consumers, the government, and businesses share the responsibility for secure use of personal data and that there must be disclosure when private data is collected.

The principles also state that the administration's goals for the National Information Infrastructure can help individuals protect their personal information. The NII is the network that lets people in the United States communicate with each other using voice, data, image, or video.

Overall, the task force says both consumers and private industry will have to take steps to control what personal information is disclosed.

"Data is the commodity that will fuel the information superhighway," the paper states. "Consumers want to control what personal information is disclosed about them, to whom, and how that information will be used. As a result, electronic commerce will flourish only if we are able to agree on and implement fair information practices for the Information Age."