Congressional Staffers Hear Online Privacy Debate

To Jason Catlett, a lot of companies are using the World Wide Web in a way that could be compared to a long-distance telephone company devised by George Orwell.

The imaginary Orwellian Long Distance Co. offers great prices, even free calls, but the consequences are a loss of personal data, said Catlett, president of Junkbusters, who drew an analogy to Big Brother in the Orwell novel "1984" during a privacy discussion at the U.S. Capitol yesterday.

Referring to the fictional company by the initials OLD, Catlett said it gathers information about users similar to the way Big Brother did in the novel -- by listening in on their telephone conversations. However, the company has more sophisticated tools such as voice recognition software to pick up certain keywords that can be used to build a profile.

All the while, Catlett said, OLD claims it is deeply committed to protecting user's privacy by posting a privacy policy assuring users that sensitive keywords about the user's health, sex life and children are excluded. OLD further promises to encrypt personal data as it moves across the Internet, allowing users to access and change the information collected about them.

Catlett asked provocatively: How many people would sign up to use such a company's services if it were indeed available? Few hands went up today during what was the first in a three-part series of privacy discussions at the Capitol for congressional staffers. But Catlett said the fictitious practices he outlined are closely analogous to the practices of Web pages that keep track of users' surfing habits by slipping a "cookie" on their browser, while at the same time reassuring them by posting privacy policies.

A study released in February by the California HealthCare Foundation reinforced Catlett's premise with its allegations that Internet health sites were collecting and sharing detailed personal information about visitors, often without their knowledge and despite promises to protect privacy. Some companies were sharing e-mail addresses and other information when they promised they would not, the report said.

Catlett said the public naturally is concerned about Internet-aided data collection and sharing because people are worried about the ease with which medical profiles could fall into the hands of employers or insurance companies.

"Why aren't these practices illegal?" Catlett asked the more than 100 staffers attending the forum, including many currently tasked with the job of trying to pass privacy legislation in the midst of an election year. "What America needs is legislation guaranteeing the rights to stop information being used about them without their consent."

The staffers heard the other side of the argument from Kevin Ryan, president of DoubleClick, and Fred Cate, director of the Information Law and Commerce Institute at Indiana University and author of the book " Privacy in the Information Age." Both cautioned the legislative aides about rushing into a legislative fix.

Ryan's company has come under fire for its practice of collecting information about where Internet surfers go, and then sending the data back to its client companies so they can target their online advertisements. Ryan said at the discussion that in his view it's too early in the evolution of the Internet and e-commerce for legislation.

"Compared to where we were a year ago, the (Internet) industry has taken up privacy policies," with nearly all the top 1,000 Web sites having privacy policies. "We need a little more time to see where it's going."

Ryan told the congressional staffers that Catlett's Orwellian telephone metaphor would be a fitting analogy only if companies such as DoubleClick were monitoring e-mail. The monitoring that DoubleClick does is "fundamentally different" because it doesn't involve private conversations and it simply matches banner ads to the user's interests, he said.

"If we asked what is the harm from banner advertisements today I have a feeling ... not one person would say I've had a problem," Ryan said. He added that users now have the option of disabling the function in their browser that allows cookies to be attached and they should do so if they don't want to receive targeted advertising.

It takes just a few minutes, Ryan said, and if they feel that's too restrictive they can set their browser so that it will notify them whenever a Web site tries to send a "cookie."

Cate said whatever Congress does, it should interfere as little as possible with individual rights. "When government intervention is necessary," he said. "It should respond effectively to a specific harm."

Senator Bill Frist, a Republican from Tennessee, and one of the moderators of the discussion, said it was useful for congressional staffers, and the members they work for, to consider the differing view points. Despite a number of privacy bills that have been introduced, Congress has taken little action toward passing legislation this year.

A staffer for Senator Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat from Maryland, said it was unlikely any of the pending bills would move forward this year because the legislative calendar is being shortened by the November election. But he predicted privacy will start getting more attention next year.

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