High-Tech Players Warm to Privacy Legislation

ASPEN, COLORADO (08/22/2000) - Fearing a slew of privacy bills from state governments responding to the public outcry over the issue, a group of high-tech giants are signaling that they might be amenable to new federal legislation if given a big enough stake in the process.

Hewlett-Packard Co., Intel Corp., and EMC Corp. are among companies getting out-front on the new position, which represents a dramatic reversal of industry's overall strategy so far of avoiding new legislation at all costs.

"Our view is that a new law worded correctly that offers consumers choice and control over the information used about them" would not be a bad idea, said Michael Maibach, Intel's vice president of governmental affairs.

Reaction to the industry faction now amenable to legislation was mixed at a discussion on privacy held here at the Progress & Freedom Foundation's technology policy conference.

"We hear that there are some who are ready to jump into bed with the regulators -- who feel they must do something," said the outspoken U.S. Federal Trade Commission member Orson Swindle.

"My words of wisdom are don't yield on this right now," he said.

U.S. Representative Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.), however, said industry is sending out conflicting signals to lawmakers.

Hutchinson said he initially got positive feedback from industry on his bill, which would establish a commission to look deeply into the privacy issue before legislation could be passed.

"The high-tech industry has given a mixed signal on the commission bill. Many have said it is a good idea, and that's the way to go. But then you have others saying, but we really don't want to do anything at all," said Hutchinson.

Privacy advocates and others are increasingly invoking the threat of multiple state privacy bills to get industry more agreeable to federal legislation.

"The reason this industry is going to need self-regulation is to protect you from government. When states get more involved, it could be death by 50 cuts," said Jerry Berman, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Democracy and Technology.

Hutchinson and others acknowledged that the landscape could become more clouded with state privacy legislation -- now cooking in California and several other states -- which would further bog down federal legislation efforts.

Among other potential complications that could be caused by the state privacy movement would be the requirement that federal lawmakers preempt state legislation when a federal bill is finally passed. And many federal lawmakers do not like the idea of having to one-up the laws passed in their statehouses.

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