Legislators Propose Commission to Study Privacy

WASHINGTON (03/15/2000) - Citing overwhelming concern among Americans about the protection of private financial, health and other personal information, two U.S. lawmakers today proposed a bill that would establish a commission to study and make recommendations about how best to ensure data privacy.

The 17-member Privacy Protection Commission would be appointed by the president and congressional leaders and would report within 18 months on potential threats to privacy, particularly any resulting from the way data is handled on the Internet. The panel would also analyze the effectiveness of existing privacy protection laws and recommend whether additional legislation is needed.

The two sponsors of the bill, Representatives Asa Hutchinson, a Republican from Arkansas, and Jim Moran, a Democrat from Virginia, said despite the high level of concern they're hearing from voters, appointing a commission is the best approach.

In addition, they said, unlike other more narrowly focused privacy protection legislation already pending in Congress, their bill has a realistic opportunity of passing before Congress adjourns.

"We should be at least able to go home and say that we've set up a very thoughtful, methodical approach to deal with the privacy issue," Hutchinson said at a news conference. "We need to think this thing through. We need to study it; we need to educate; we need to make sure we do something that is right as well as something that takes us closer to protecting individual privacy."

Moran said polls show that privacy is a major concern of the American people despite trends toward online retailers pledging to police themselves and more displays of privacy policies on Web sites. Eighty percent of Americans in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll cited at the news conference said they considered the sale of their financial information a major invasion of their privacy, and 29 percent listed loss of privacy as their greatest concern in the new millennium.

But Moran said he supports the bill because he wants to avoid a knee-jerk reaction to the concerns and because the Internet has flourished in the absence of burdensome government regulation.

"I know there is a public outcry out there for us to do something, but we really need to be reflective and thoughtful and deliberate and cautious before we do something that we will regret later," Moran said at the news conference.

"Rather than having a potpourri of different ad hoc types of approaches to privacy legislation, this would enable us to set up a structure ... within which to legislate in a consistent uniform manner."

Hutchinson said the commission would differ from the Federal Trade Commission's Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security, which plans to report its findings in May, by taking a much broader approach and by addressing the issue from a legislative point of view. The FTC's 40-member committee was appointed in January and asked to look at security of consumers' data and consumer access to information collected about them.

Moran and Hutchinson also said the Privacy Protection Commission they propose would differ from a privacy caucus formed in February by a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Moran said that group had a political agenda.

"I think ours is less interested in visibility," he said.

Hutchinson stressed that there would be a deadline for the commission to report and it would dissolve after completing its work.

The bill has been assigned to the House Government Reform Committee and is likely to be placed on the committee's agenda for hearings in late April, he added.

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