Watching the Watchers: Congress Finally Sets Its Sight on Privacy and the Internet

By Bachman, Katy | ADWEEK, March 14, 2011 | Go to article overview

Watching the Watchers: Congress Finally Sets Its Sight on Privacy and the Internet


Bachman, Katy, ADWEEK


Personal privacy isn't what it used to be. Just ask Mark Zuckerberg, the co- founder of Facebook, who called privacy on the Internet a "gray area." He should know--Zuckerberg's site has created a new culture of privacy, one in which people freely give up all sorts of information.

But this is one area that might not stay gray for long. With privacy advocates warning that the Internet is turning into a capitalist version of Big Brother and users increasingly concerned about the amount of information they're giving up about themselves, the issue is drawing elected officials like--well, like politicians to a camera. Though legislation has been kicking around for the last few years, this looks like the year there could be real traction, spurred on by an administration that has prioritized all things Internet.

Meanwhile, the industry isn't giving up without a fight, not when the Internet offers marketers an unprecedented opportunity to serve ads, services and content that people care about in a targeted way. So advertisers, industry associations and tech companies alike are suddenly moving quickly to self-regulate, hoping that if they get there first, they can keep the government from doing it for them.

This year's round of debates opens this week in the Senate, where Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., who chairs the Commerce Committee, is set to convene a hearing. Here's our guide to the players.

LEGISLATORS

JOHN KERRY

Sen. Kerry, D-Mass., who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee's subcommittee on communications (say that 10 times fast), has been working on legislation since last July. He's close to lining up Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as a co-sponsor. Combine Kerry's status as a leader among Senate Democrats and the bipartisan flair that McCain's approval would give, and his bill might be the odds-on favorite.

MARY BONO MACK

Though she's best known as the widow of Sonny Bono, Rep. Bono Mack, R-Calif., is a lot more than that, especially when it comes to online privacy. She calls herself a "high-tech policymaker" and wields a lot of power when it comes to this issue thanks to her role as chair of the subcommittee on commerce, manufacturing and trade. She's likely to serve as a broker between the House and the Senate, ironing out any differences between the two chambers' bills.

ED MARKEY AND JOE BARTON

One day some enterprising studio executive could make a good odd-couple sitcom based on the relationship between Reps. Markey, D-Mass., and Barton, R-Texas. Unnatural allies, to say the least, the two have teamed up on privacy as co-chairs of the Congressional Privacy Caucus and have made it their personal mission to keep privacy policies honest. As a result of their inquiry into Facebook's new opt-in feature for sharing personal information, Facebook tightened the policy and procedure.

CLIFF STEARNS

Rep. Stearns, R-Fla., has been dedicated to this issue for some time now--he's been at it since 2005, in fact. In the last Congress, he introduced a bill with former Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va. It didn't get anywhere then, but Stearns will use it as a template for new legislation in this Congress.

KERRY & STEARNS BILLS

Both bills emphasize self-regulatory privacy policies so that Web sites are up front about their policies, let consumers know when personal information is collected and how it's used or shared, and gives them the opportunity to opt out. KERRY BILL: Empowers the FTC to establish rules that require companies to have strong security measures in place to protect consumers' personal information. Consumers must also be notified when their information is collected, how it's used or shared, and be given the ability to opt out. …

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