WASHINGTON (05/23/2000) - There was slight irritation in Senator Bill Frist's voice when he asked the president of Doubleclick Inc. about "cookies" during a discussion of privacy at the U.S. Capitol last month.
"Do I have cookies?" the Tennessee Republican probed, sounding more like a confused baker than a U.S. senator when the topic turned to the small lines of code placed on Web surfers' computers as they roam from site to site.
Kevin Ryan, whose company depends at least in part on those cookies to build profiles of customers for advertisers, told the senator there were potentially thousands of sites that had placed a cookie on his browser.
"Can I ask one more question?" Frist implored after hearing Ryan's explanation.
"How do I turn it off?"
The information Frist sought was fairly basic, and Ryan advised him about how to change the settings on his PC so it would no longer accept cookies. But the question highlighted a growing debate in Washington about what Congress and U.S. President Bill Clinton's administration should do, if anything, to strengthen the country's privacy protection laws.
The discussion in which Frist and Ryan took part was sponsored by The Forum on Technology & Innovation, an informal organization set up by Frist and a fellow senator. It was a standing-room-only event, and will be followed by two similar sessions planned by the forum for congressional members who are busy drafting and redrafting a handful of privacy bills now pending in the Congress.
Whether the forum's work will be rewarded with a presidential signature on any of the proposed bills is dubious during the current session of Congress. But as Web surfers become savvier and shift into a "there-oughtta-be-a-law" mood about the amount of information collected about them on the Web, privacy advocates are betting that politicians will want to grab this topic and run with it.
Just a few weeks ago Clinton raised the privacy issue with a proposal to make it harder for companies to share information about consumers' medical records, spending habits and other personal information. "We can't let breakthroughs in technology break down the walls of privacy," the president said, noting that an individual's buying habits can now be sorted and tracked easily by computers.
Of the privacy bills Congress is considering, Asa Hutchinson, a Republican from Arkansas, and Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, introduced a proposal in March citing Americans' overwhelming concern about the perceived erosion of privacy. But their legislation has been nicknamed "the privacy procrastination bill" because a commission that it would establish to study the issue would be given 18 months to produce its report.
The consensus is that with the possible exception of the president's proposal, there won't be any major privacy legislation passed during the current session of Congress. Everyone is aware that something needs to be done, one lobbyist said, but it's a question of how to pass a bill without causing harm to businesses and consumers, especially when so much of the economy depends on the sharing of information.
Other obstacles to passing new privacy laws may have less to do with national policy and more to do with those who set them. The lobbyists themselves concede that few members of Congress fully understand the privacy issue and the complex technologies at its core. Others wonder how well U.S. politicians, who surrender so much of their personal privacy to the media when they take office, can grasp the concept at all.
Throw in the U.S. Constitution's cherished freedom of speech provisions, the limitations on the federal government's authority to regulate states, and the expense of implementing privacy laws, and it's clear that Congress has it's work cut out.
Privacy advocates remain optimistic, however, and signs indicate that the topic is destined to join a growing list of technology-related issues that politicians in Washington will wrestle with and use in their campaigns over the coming years. Like cookies, it seems, the privacy debate has a certain irresistibility about it.