For the first time in years, Congress is talking seriously about a new Internet privacy law.
Last month, a "discussion draft" of new privacy legislation was released by Rick Boucher (D-VA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, along with the ranking Republican, Cliff Stearns.
Any rewrite of federal privacy law is sure to affect big companies like Google and Facebook, but for the time being, they've avoided the limelight on this issue. They're deferring instead to small Internet operators.
Last week, the Interactive Advertising Bureau — an industry trade group — brought dozens of small-scale Web publishers to Capitol Hill to lobby against sweeping new privacy restrictions. The IAB's vice president for public policy, Mike Zaneis, says small Internet businesses make the most effective lobbyists on this issue.
"Once you meet these entrepreneurs, it's very hard to introduce a piece of legislation that would put a mom and pop shop out of business, potentially," says Zaneis.
One of those mom and pop shops is James Martin's website, www.ikeafans.com. It's a forum for people who buy Ikea furniture and can't figure out how to put it together. Martin makes his income selling space to advertisers who want to target these people. His site collects information about visitors to better tailor ads to their interests. The Boucher bill would require his site to notify his users that he's collecting this information — something he says would be very bad for business.
"It would kill it," Martin says. "When they see a big warning, they're immediately going to assume that we are doing something nefarious. And now they're going to be concerned, and, like, 'Wait a minute — maybe I should go somewhere else.' "
Boucher says his bill isn't meant to scare away website customers. On the contrary, it's meant to give them more confidence to do business online. As it stands right now, he says, the absence of clear federal privacy rights has given a lot of people pause. "There's a lot of uncertainty on people's part about what information is collected from them when they visit websites and how that information is used and with whom it's shared," Boucher says.
Once the bill is introduced, Boucher predicts the core debate will be over what the experts call "opt-in" versus "opt-out." Opt-in rules require your consent before your data are collected; opt-out lets the website do it until you say no. Civil liberties groups prefer opt-in; advertisers prefer opt-out.
So far, Boucher's draft bill splits the difference, applying opt-in only to more sensitive kinds of information, such as a person's race, or his physical location. It's a compromise that gives both sides a lot to hate.
But Leslie Harris, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology, gives Boucher credit. "He stepped up to start the conversation that everybody has been unwilling to have on Capitol Hill. And that's a very important first step," says Harris.
There is a political risk, because this legislation affects more than just advertising. The behavioral data gathered by commercial websites have become a rich resource for law enforcement. "So the consumer laws will also be important in limiting these 'honey pots' [of personal data] that we're creating for the government," says Harris.
Following Sept. 11, Congress was reluctant to pass any legislation that might limit the data available to investigators. But that reluctance is fading. Harris says, for the first time in years, Internet privacy is no longer a partisan issue.