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Senate panel approves more Net-policing powers

FTC could share more information with foreign governments, but with few public disclosure obligations.

The Federal Trade Commission would gain expanded policing powers and could share information about spammers and other miscreants with foreign governments under a bill approved Thursday by a U.S. Senate panel.

Called the Undertaking Spam, Spyware, and Fraud Enforcement with Enforcers Beyond Borders Act of 2005, the proposal is nearly identical to legislation pushed by the FTC itself two years ago that drew concerns from civil liberties groups and was never enacted.

In essence, the bill would expand existing FTC powers so that the agency could go after any "unfair or deceptive practices" that are likely to cause "forseeable injury" on U.S. soil or involve conduct in the United States.

Intended by its sponsors to help combat such menaces as spam, spyware and telemarketing fraud carried out on international turf, the bill would allow the FTC to collaborate with foreign law enforcement agencies and swap information on a reciprocal basis.

"This is one of the most insidious things that can possibly happen, where somebody sends a program into your computer and suddenly starts spying on you from your own computer, and we can't get at it because so much of it is done overseas," Sen. Conrad Burns, a Montana Republican, said at Thursday's Senate Commerce Committee meeting. "So this is going to give the FTC the tools that it needs to try to get cooperation overseas."

At the same time, the measure would "enhance the confidentiality of FTC investigations," said Sen. Gordon Smith, an Oregon Republican and the bill's chief sponsor.

That's because the FTC under the bill would not be obligated to disclose any material obtained during the investigation to anyone--unless Congress or a court orders the agency to do so.

A court could also delay or prohibit that disclosure if the judge finds that leaking the information could cause an "adverse result"--defined as endangering an individual's life or personal safety, causing flight from prosecution or destruction of evidence, intimidating potential witnesses, or "otherwise seriously jeopardizing an investigation."

Those provisions have repeatedly drawn alarm from civil liberties groups, which argue that the bill's wording is far too broad to safeguard against privacy intrusions and to file Freedom of Information Act requests about the FTC's activities in that area.

The bill won't become law unless it wins approval from the full Senate and House of Representatives. A similar measure was backed by a U.S. House of Representatives committee last year but failed to make it to the floor.