Saturday, January 22, 2011

Online privacy debate gets revived


Lawmakers in both parties are signaling renewed interest in protecting consumers’ online privacy.

Senate Democrats appear to be readying a new push to revive the debate over how companies like Google, Yahoo and Facebook should handle users’ sensitive details online. And a number of new House Republican leaders are promising to explore the issue in 2011, while the Obama administration continues to devise its own new digital rules of the road.

For now, all eyes are on the Senate Commerce Committee, which industry sources expect will host the first public hearing on Internet privacy as early as mid-February. That inquiry is expected to include some discussion of “Do Not Track” technology — or tools that allow consumers to opt out of seeing advertisements based on the sites they visit.

A committee aide said Friday a hearing has not yet been scheduled, but added that the issue is of great interest to Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.).

In another sign of renewed interest on the Hill, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is widely believed to be working on privacy reform legislation. An early draft of Kerry’s effort, obtained this week by POLITICO, would follow a recent recommendation from the Commerce Department to create a federal office dedicated to online privacy.

The proposal has been making the rounds among privacy lobbyists since December, but Kerry’s spokeswoman told POLITICO it is an older draft of the bill. She said he has not yet introduced a final product.

As it stands, the draft of Kerry’s effort grants the Federal Trade Commission the authority to hold Web companies accountable for their actions, and it sets fines for firms that violate the rules. But it also provides for so-called safe harbors — essentially, groups of companies that adhere to basic rules of the road, formed with the help of federal officials. Those safe-harbor companies could be exempt from some fines.

Industry leaders have widely anticipated a flood of online privacy efforts to originate on the Hill in 2011, following a steady stream of gaffes that plagued even the most established of Web players over the past few months.

Just this week, Facebook took heat for changing its developer policy to allow app makers to request access to users’ addresses — a move it reversed after the criticism. And privacy advocates are still closely watching Google, even months after its Street View cars inadvertently collected data streamed over wireless networks.
Both chambers and parties still have their disagreements over how best to oversee these companies and ensure consumers are being protected online. But recent headlines have provoked a groundswell of interest in Washington to offer some remedy in 2011.

For one thing, top Republicans on House Energy and Commerce Committee labeled privacy one of the panel’s top priorities entering 2011 in a memo leaked to reporters this week.

“I don’t see the issue going away,” said Neil Fried, GOP chief counsel to the committee, at a State of the Net conference panel before the memo became public. He later joked that there remains “bipartisan non-consensus” on how to approach the complex issue.

The committee’s new oversight chairman, Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), could revise and reintroduce the privacy bill he and then-Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) offered last year.

The legislation already has some appeal, as Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told POLITICO on Tuesday that it was a conversation starter.

“Let’s get a bill there and start working through it, and hear from some of the individuals and the innovators,” she said. Blackburn added she would even remain open to “Do Not Track” technology. “Let’s see what shape it comes in, let’s see exactly what it’s going to look like,” she said.

The subcommittee that played a big role in the privacy debate last year, under the helm of Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), also staked its claim in the debate this week. New Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) informed members in a “Dear Colleague” letter Thursday she was deeply committed to the issue and planned to meet with stakeholders as debate unfolds.

Efforts on Capitol Hill come as as the Obama administration continues work on two inquiries into what role the government should play in keeping Web companies in line.

Both the Commerce Department and the FTC have been hard at work since each agency released a draft framework for online privacy protection and enforcement last year. Debate over their drafts is sure to return next week, as companies and other stakeholders file comments in time for the Commerce Department’s first round review deadline.

The FTC initially planned to close its first round of public comment next week, but it announced Friday it would push back the deadline by two weeks.

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