Cause For Concern About Washington’s Privacy Drive

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The Obama Administration threw its weight behind privacy legislation Wednesday as Assistant Commerce Secretary Lawrence Strickling testified before the Senate Commerce Committee about online privacy. Clearly Washington is focusing on privacy issues, but will meaningful consumer protections be enacted?

There is cause for concern.

It's the first time the White House has endorsed the idea of privacy legislation and Senators John Kerry, D-MA, and John McCain, R-AZ, are working on a bipartisan privacy bill.  Representatives Bobby Rush, D-Il, and Cliff Stearns, R-FL, have separate privacy bills, while Rep. Jackie Speier, D-CA, has introduced "Do Not Track Me" legislation.

But the Commerce Department is in the driver's seat on the issue for the Obama Administration.  Commerce is all about promoting business, not about protecting consumers.

Strickling  told the Committee that privacy legislation should be based on Fair Information Practices (FIPs) and provide a sort of "bill of privacy rights."  He said the specific rules should be developed through a process that includes stakeholders from the commercial, consumer advocacy and academic sectors, rather than a usual regulatory process.

Industry has the resources to completely overwhelm consumers in this bogus process that the Commerce Department envisions.  Conventional rulemaking has safeguards for a reason. It's also subject to judicial review.

Commerce's effort is all about paying lip service to Consumers' demands for protection while promoting a new privacy law that is designed to help leading U.S. online marketing companies, including Google and Facebook, head-off stronger privacy rules by the European Union.

The danger is that it's likely any legislation will merely codify current online industry self-regulatory schemes, which provide no real protection.

Another troubling aspect are the behind-the-scenes links. The leading candidate for privacy legislation in the Senate is a Kerry-McCain bill. Staffers are still hammering out mutually acceptable language.

A key player in the Commerce Department's initiative is Cameron Kerry, the department's general counsel. He's Sen. Kerry's brother, a point the Senator acknowledged at Thursday's hearing "as a slight nepotism going on here." "They've done it without my instruction, on their own," the senator said.

Meanwhile, Pablo Chavez, now Google's Public Policy Director in Washington, used to be McCain's chief counsel.  You can bet the Internet giant's views will fall on receptive ears as the bill is drafted.

Yes, everyone in Washington is talking the privacy talk.  It remains to be shown that anybody will actually walk the walk.

John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson
John M. Simpson is an American consumer rights advocate and former journalist. Since 2005, he has worked for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan nonprofit public interest group, as the lead researcher on Inside Google, the group's effort to educate the public about Google's dominance over the internet and the need for greater online privacy.

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