EDITORIAL: Big government in your browser

Obama administration pushes to regulate Internet privacy

Administration officials are determined to grab hold of the Internet - for your protection. The latest scheme will be the subject of a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday on “The State of Online Consumer Privacy.” Regulators claim various online nuisances such as spam, identity theft and other privacy invasions cry out for government intervention. It’s a classic Washington power grab for the digital era.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Commerce kicked off the latest push in December with reports that suggest Internet commerce is doomed unless Uncle Sam steps in to “coordinate” the private sector’s efforts. “While recent announcements of privacy innovations by a range of companies are encouraging, many companies - both online and offline - do not adequately address consumer privacy interests,” the FTC report stated. The Commerce Department report called for adoption of enhanced “Fair Information Practice Principles.”

Over a decade ago, the FTC came close to convincing lawmakers to legislate a similar set of “Fair Information Principles” giving the agency authority to enforce its bureaucratic rules. The regulatory plot was torpedoed when members of the House Republican leadership tasked the Government Accountability Office to measure whether federal government websites abided by the same fair information principles it wanted to impose on the private sector. Ninety-seven percent of official websites - including www.ftc.gov and various Commerce Department websites - failed to meet the standards.

While bureaucrats love to pretend they are experts in solving our everyday problems, their real expertise is hypocrisy. For example, public-sector busybodies work themselves up into a lather about unsolicited e-mail spam - an annoyance that can be deleted with a mouse click. Back in the real world, court records, voter registration lists and other government databases provide a wealth of information to identity thieves. Congressmen enjoy taxpayer-funded mailing service that allows them to send unsolicited flyers to constituents who aren’t necessarily interested in reading politicians’ thinly disguised re-election materials. The Postal Service itself derives a sizable chunk of its revenue from the millions of tons of unwanted advertising it delivers each year. The Transportation Security Administration pulls out the “it’s for your protection” line to justify the most outrageous privacy invasion of all in subjecting millions of innocent travelers - young and old - to nude photography sessions and groping.

The blue-gloved hands of government must be kept off the Internet. Market forces have proved up to the task of keeping bad actors in line. Facebook, for example, updated its policies to better protect privacy in light of widespread complaints. Those unsatisfied with the changes are under no obligation to use the social networking website. That wouldn’t be the case if the bureaucracy had the authority to promulgate rules and regulation. The Internet has thrived precisely because it has been free of such red tape. It needs to stay that way.

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