House Subcommittees Launch Comprehensive Review of Internet Privacy

Coverage Type: reporting
House Commerce Committee, 45 Independence Ave SW 2123 Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, DC, 20515, United States

The House Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade, chaired by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA), and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), kicked off a hearing series on privacy issues to examine how information is collected, protected, and utilized in an increasingly interconnected online ecosystem. The hearing featured testimony from the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. These agencies provided an overview of existing privacy regulations and standards to help identify key issues for discussion moving forward.

During the hearing, Chairman Bono Mack posed to a regulator the fundamental questions that will guide the subcommittees' work in the coming months: is a privacy regulation needed? If so, how do we prevent harm? FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez responded, “Consumers simply do not know what information is being collected about them and how that data is being used. So the framework that the [FTC] staff has proposed in its initial report seeks to balance basic privacy protections for consumers against the needs of the business community. The fundamental need is to provide increased protection for consumers and choice and control over the information that is being collected about them and how it’s being used.”

In their opening statements, members of both parties stressed that privacy protection should not be a partisan issue. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), however, expressed skepticism that Republicans would support tough regulations to protect people’s personal information. Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) argued that targeted advertising can be helpful to consumers by providing them information about relevant products, and that any new “Do Not Track” regulation should take into account its impact on businesses.

Reps. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX) say protecting children should be a priority. They have introduced a “do not track” bill for kids that also aims to create privacy rules that require Web site companies to inform users how they deal with data on teens. The bill also requires an “eraser button” that would allow parents to delete data on minors. The witnesses said they support greater protections for children. But they stopped short of saying they support or oppose Markey’s and Barton’s children’s “do not track” bill.

Overall, the Committee's first foray into the issue of Internet privacy provided little guidance on whether lawmakers will proceed with legislation. Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) indicated that he is in no hurry, either. "I want to get this issue right," Chairman Upton said "We need to hear from everyone with a stake in Internet privacy before we contemplate legislating."

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