Congress on Privacy: Pass or Fail?

FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - Remember pulling all-nighters in college? It was hard to block out the distractions until the prospect of flunking your finals loomed larger than the keg in the living room.

Well, for Congress, Election Day is finals. Lawmakers want voters to think it's worth sending them back to Washington. And now that those voters are getting riled up about online privacy, Capitol Hill is paying more attention to the issue.

Naturally, e-commerce companies want the feds to let the marketplace sort out acceptable uses of customer data. So far, that's been reason enough for many legislators to leave the issue alone (and remain eligible for new-economy campaign cash). Don't bet yet on passage of a consumer privacy bill (though one focused on financial privacy has a better chance), but do expect quick action if the public makes more of a fuss.

Business leaders and privacy advocates are pushing competing proposals. One, advocated by Rep. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, and others, would force companies to beg for permission before using the customer's information. The other, proposed by Sens. Conrad Burns, a Republican from Montana, and Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, would let them do as they like unless consumers "opt out" of their databases.

Business wants Congress to at least bar states from passing their own incompatible (and possibly stronger) protections. Some two dozen states are mulling privacy legislation, including Missouri, which has approved a law making it a felony to use personal data without permission.

"The scariest outcome here is the idea that you have different privacy rules if people surfing the web are coming from state A or state B," says Harris Miller, president of the D.C.-based Information Technology Association of America.

State Sen. Robert Jauch, a Democrat from Wisconsin, in charge of privacy policy for the National Conference of State Legislatures, favors national rules but isn't confident the feds will do a good job of protecting the individual.

While it's all being sorted out, companies can inoculate themselves against future liability by considering privacy and data security when they set up new systems, says Ari Schwartz, a policy analyst at the D.C.-based pro-consumer Center for Democracy and Technology. "When companies do privacy or security impact statements, they'll have a lot less to worry about."

WEB ENABLING THE DISABLED Advocates for the disabled hope that upcoming guidelines for making government websites accessible to people with disabilities will also serve as a model for commercial sites. David Yanchulis, an accessibility specialist with the feds' Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board, says that many accommodations designed for the disabled (e.g. ramps, curb cuts and big rest room stalls) are popular with mainstream customers too.

But Rep. Charles Canady, a Republican from Florida, worries that the guidelines might become ammunition in lawsuits against companies that haven't, for example, added closed-captioning to video clips or tagged graphics so they can be read by text-to-speech software. Canady, who chaired a House Subcommittee on the Constitution in the hearing on the Americans with Disabilities Act and the internet in February, wants to see what the courts say about a case filed by the National Federation of the Blind against AOL last year demanding that AOL change its software to work with Braille or audio translation tools.

Find information about these federal guidelines at www.access-board.gov. For updates on these and other government topics, check out the Government and IT Policy Research Center on CIO.com.

Got news or views on IT issues in Washington? Send them to washington@cio.com.

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