Personal information remains largely unprotected on the Internet, but Congress has been slow to pass legislation to shield consumers because the debate over privacy legislation is still raging.
"For people on line, it's sort of `fend for yourselves,' which is hard to do because a lot of information that's collected is gathered surreptitiously," said Marc Rotenberg, director of the nonprofit Electronic Privacy Information Center, a D.C. public interest research group advocating privacy in the Internet.
Lawmakers say they don't dispute the need to protect personal information, but they are not sure how best to promote privacy.
The prevailing mood in Congress is to let the private sector regulate itself, not write laws that could slow down the technology industry.
"I don't think we want to set up a whole regulatory process," said Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, Virginia Republican.
Even so, lawmakers have introduced a raft of legislation this year.
More than a dozen bills have been introduced this session that contain some provision for protecting personal information that is transmitted electronically.
Bills that have been introduced and could help shape federal privacy law include measures on on-line privacy, policies requiring businesses to post privacy notices, privacy of medical records, privacy of encrypted messages and privacy of Social Security numbers.
The most recent privacy debate surrounded the House banking reform bill, passed July 1.
The bill includes an amendment requiring financial companies to disclose their policies on collecting, using and protecting financial information of their customers. It would allow customers to block sharing some of their information with outside companies and give federal banking regulators a role in enforcing privacy standards.
The House voted 343-86 to approve the bill. The measure moves to a conference committee where lawmakers will address differences between the House bill and Senate version, which passed in May.
The Children's On-line Privacy Protection Act of 1998 is among the only significant laws passed recently to ensure Internet privacy. Even that measure hasn't taken effect because rule-making is incomplete. The law will limit what information can be collected on line from children.
"There's no question privacy is a coming issue. It has been coming. The reason is that there's a tension between what information people want on the Internet and what government and businesses want to do with that information," said Evan Hendricks, founder and publisher of Privacy Times, a D.C.-based publication covering privacy and technology issues since 1981.
Businesses want to collect personal information so they can use it to help them make money by selling more products and services on line to an audience that becomes ever familiar through data gathering, Mr. Hendricks said.
For example, the 60 million-name database for Iowa-based book and magazine publisher Meredith Corp., which publishes Better Homes & Gardens, has an average of 350 pieces of information on each person, some of which is gathered electronically.
Electronic commerce is the engine fueling interest in the Internet and driving the debate over privacy. …