US House committee ponders 'Net privacy

The US seems to finally be on the road to a good privacy law. In what may be the first steps toward proposed Internet privacy policy legislation, a US House Judiciary subcommittee has listened to testimony on the effectiveness of industry efforts to police its handling of customers' personal information. The Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property's hearing centered on the amount of personal information collected and how it's used, as well as how successful self-regulation has been,

In what may be the first steps toward proposed Internet privacy policy legislation, a US House Judiciary subcommittee has listened to testimony on the effectiveness of industry efforts to police its handling of customers' personal information.

The Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property's hearing centered on the amount of personal information collected and how it's used, as well as how successful self-regulation has been, according to a statement from the committee.

The hearing comes on the heels of a Georgetown University Internet Privacy Policy study released earlier this month that found 65.7%of the 7,500 most popular Web sites posted privacy policies, compared with 14 percent last year in a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) study. Out of the top 100 Web sites, 94% posted privacy policies.

Duringthe testimony, Online Privacy Alliance Director Christine Varney, a former FTC commissioner, said legislation isn't needed because the private sector has taken steps to protect consumers' privacy. The alliance is a coalition of corporations and associations working to promote industry self-regulation efforts.

"The leap from 14 percent to 65.7% shows that privacy policies are proliferating," Varney said in a statement. "We believe that when American consumers see more than two-thirds of the Internet's most heavily trafficked Web sites posting privacy policies, it is possible to talk about respect for consumer privacy becoming the norm online."

But Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, disagreed, saying self-regulation hasn't addressed consumer concerns about their privacy and the Internet.

"Industry policies are typically incomplete, incoherent and unenforceable. They are having little impact on actual data collection practices," Rotenberg said in testimony submitted to the committee. Legislation would provide "simple, predictable, uniform rules" to regulate how personal information is collected and used, providing consumers and businesses with trust in the new environment, he said.

But legislation isn't the answer yet, said Anne Jennings, a spokesperson for Cupertino, California-based Truste, a nonprofit organization aimed at building consumer confidence in online transactions by offering privacy seals to sites that meet its guidelines. "It's too early to develop Internet legislation because technology" is being developed quickly, she said. Technology may be developed in time to solve privacy issues, Jennings said.

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