- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001

Republicans took aim at European on-line privacy policies yesterday during a hearing of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, one of the key panels considering new privacy laws in the United States.
The panel yesterday discussed Europe's on-line privacy policies as it ponders whether to place more regulations on U.S. Web sites collecting personal data of consumers.
Lawmakers criticized the European Union Data Protection Directive, established to protect the personal data of Europe's citizens, and the safe-harbor provision, a data privacy accord that protects U.S. companies from sanctions by the European Union.
"I am not convinced the safe-harbor provisions will mitigate the concerns over the regressive affects" of the European Union directive, said Rep. Cliff Stearns, Florida Republican and chairman of the commerce, trade and consumer protection subcommittee, which held the hearing.
The European Union's data protection directive took effect in October 1998.
The Clinton administration negotiated the safe-harbor provision, which says U.S. companies that voluntarily agree to the principles of notice, choice and access must notify European consumers how they plan to use data they collect from them.
Safe harbor, which took effect in May, was a response to the data protection directive that prohibits the transfer of personal data to companies outside the European Union that failed to meet the 15-nations bloc's standards for protecting personal information. The European Commission, the European Union's governing body, has said the safe-harbor principles provide adequate privacy protections.
Europeans view protection of personal data given to on-line companies as a fundamental human right, Stefano Rodota, chairman of the European Union Data Protection Working Party, told the subcommittee yesterday.
"Europe is now the region of the world where personal data is most protected," Mr. Rodota said.
European privacy protection measures are generally regarded as more stringent than in the United States.
"The bottom line is that the U.S. can learn a lot from the successful experiment of the EU directive," said Electronic Information Privacy Center Director Marc Rotenberg, who did not testify yesterday.
But a survey in January by Consumers International, a London-based group representing more than 250 consumer organizations, showed the privacy practices of U.S. Web sites are often better than their European counterparts, undermining arguments of those who say European-style government regulation will boost privacy protection.
The report concluded:
Despite tight EU regulations, sites within Europe are no better at telling users how they use consumer data than U.S. Web sites.
The most popular U.S. Web sites are more likely than European sites to give users a choice about having their information passed on to another company.
"I think the hearing helped lend credence to using a mixture of government oversight and self-regulation to protect privacy," David Steer, spokesman for TRUSTe, a San Jose, Calif., company that monitors Web site privacy policies through its own voluntary program, said after the hearing.
Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, Louisiana Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said Europe's on-line privacy policies are unfairly driving global Internet policy and are burdensome to U.S. companies.
"One of the many drawbacks of imposing something like the privacy directive on the entire world is that one size does not fit all," Mr. Tauzin said.
Some at the hearing countered that the European approach to privacy protection could benefit U.S. consumers.
"We believe that consumer confidence will be enhanced by ensuring customer privacy on and off-line in a global commerce environment," Barbara Lawler, manager of customer privacy at Hewlett-Packard Co., told the House subcommittee.
What's troubling is that U.S. companies doing in business in Europe are obligated to offer more protection for personal data of Europeans than for American consumers, testified Joel R. Reidenberg, Fordham University law professor.

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