Congress Debates On-Line Privacy

By Bruce Sullivan | July 7, 2008 | 8:26 PM EDT

( - The Federal Trade Commission will reportedly ask Congress for more authority to enforce Internet privacy standards, but many online businesses say they already have significant privacy policies and there is no need for government interference.

"We still have work to do, but it is premature for the government to call for broad new laws," said former FTC Commissioner Christine Varney.

Varney, now an advisor to the Online Privacy Alliance, said a new report to be released by the FTC this week shows the number of Web sites posting privacy policies has risen from 14 percent to 90 percent in the last two years.

Online privacy policies tell consumers what information about them is being collected, how it will be used, how it will be protected, and how the customer can make corrections, if necessary. Then the customer can decide for themselves whether to shop at the Web site and what information to share, said OPA spokesperson Sidney Rubin.

For the number of online businesses who offer upfront privacy policies to have grown by more than 600 percent in such a short period of time, is "phenomenal," said Rubin, and proof that more legislation is not needed at this time.

However, at least two new pieces of legislation, one in the Senate and one in the House, are scheduled to go to the floor of Congress this week. "Some of the self-regulation from the Internet companies is working, but it isn''t going far enough," said a spokesman for Senator Richard Bryan, (D-NV).

If Congress does pass new legislation at the behest of the FTC, that would be a bit strange, said the founder of PolicyCounsel.Com, a Washington advocacy group dedicated to the principle of limited government.

"It''s odd for a federal agency to be recommending legislation to Congress," said James W Harper. "Congress is supposed to respond to the people that they represent."

Harper said the FTC has done numerous studies for Congress, such as this latest one on Internet privacy, "But when it comes to the point of recommending legislation, it''s just not cricket."

Not all in Congress are sure that more legislation is needed to regulate privacy matters over the Internet when the business sector seems to be doing an adequate job.

"A vast number of sites disclose what their privacy policies are and give consumers more control on what information is gathered and how it will be used," said House Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection Subcommittee Chairman Representative Billy Tauzin, (R-LA). "It''s good for companies to be secure and many are exploring new self regulation systems.
More and more companies are adopting policies of not doing business with companies that don''t have good privacy policies."

Instead of passing new legislation, Rubin and Harper say the existing laws and regulations on privacy should be enforced.

"There are deceptive trade practice laws that can be enforced by the FTC against anyone who violates the privacy policies they have posted on the Web," said Rubin.

"Using the courts to regulate common law is much more forward looking, and is much more encouraging of innovation, and is a better approach to protecting privacy than to have federal \lquote one size fits all'' regulations," said Harper.

Regardless of the latest FTC recommendations, some on Capitol Hill say the topic of Internet privacy will be debated for some time.

"It''s one of the most important legislative issues for the next ten years," said a spokesman for Representative Joe Barton, (R-TX).