- The Washington Times - Friday, March 2, 2001

A House panel yesterday expressed support for privacy legislation that protects the personal information of Internet users.

But while Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's commerce, trade and consumer protection subcommittee, said privacy is the panel's highest priority, no consensus on where to begin emerged.

The subcommittee said a privacy bill must strike a balance that addresses the "dirty secret" that privacy can be good for businesses and that sharing personal information can benefit consumers.

With consumers increasingly alarmed about giving personal information to Web sites, lawmakers warned against ignoring cries for privacy laws.

"Punting might be good in football, but this committee is finished punting," said Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Congress didn't pass Internet privacy legislation last year. This year, six bills have been referred to the House Energy and Commerce Committee since Jan. 3. Others have been referred to separate House and Senate panels. Nearly 30 bills affecting Internet privacy were introduced last year.

Separately, the Congressional Privacy Caucus headed by Rep. Edward J. Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. Richard C. Shelby, Alabama Republican, called a hearing yesterday to focus attention on Web bugs. The bugs enable Web sites to snoop on Internet users by copying lists of files and e-mail address lists on a person's computer and sending them to the site that planted the bug.

The lack of legislative action last year by Congress is significant because it has allowed Internet companies to regulate themselves, but that hasn't worked as well as it could, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the District of Columbia-based Electronic Privacy Information Center, said during yesterday's hearing.

"I think they have made a good-faith effort. They have made progress, but I think they could do a better job," Mr. Rotenberg said.

Others testifying before the House panel said regulations on how Web sites treat information gathered from consumers will stifle Internet commerce.

"Laws and regulations designed to protect privacy interfere with [access to consumer information] and therefore with the benefits that result from the open flow of information," said Fred Cate, professor at the Indiana University School of Law.

Solveig Singleton, senior policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, argued against privacy legislation by saying Web sites need unlimited ability to gather data from consumers because they can't always collect the same marketing data that brick-and-mortar retailers collect.

Just how lawmakers address on-line privacy remains in doubt, Mr. Cate said after the hearing, because lawmakers still seem to be struggling with the complicated issue of Internet privacy.

"They are figuring out that this issue is much more complex than they first thought, and that makes it much less likely that will take steps toward a major bill," he said.

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh told the panel that lawmakers could begin with smaller legislative steps like requiring Web sites to post privacy policies or prevent the surreptitious collection of information from consumers through the use of tools like "cookies," small files one computer sends to another to track what sites Internet users visit.

Mr. Tauzin said he supports passing an Internet privacy bill partly because it would prevent passage of myriad state laws, that could further complicate attempts to regulate the Web.

The Internet Alliance, which represents high-tech companies, says 14 bills dealing with identity theft and fraud and 53 bills dealing with financial privacy have been introduced in state legislatures.

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