MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The recent upset over privacy on Facebook hasn't gone unnoticed in Washington. For the first time in years, Congress is talking seriously about a new Internet privacy law.
And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, the industry is worried the new rules will go too far.
MARTIN KASTE: Any rewrite of federal privacy law is sure to affect big companies like Google, but as the lobbying on the issue heats up, the big boys are staying out of sight. Instead, owners of small websites have been wandering the halls of Congress. They're being shepherded around Capitol Hill by the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an industry trade group. The IAB's Mike Zaneis says the small Internet companies make the most effective lobbyists against restrictive new privacy laws.
Mr. MIKE ZANEIS (Vice President of Public Policy, Interactive Advertising Bureau): Because 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.
KASTE: One of those mom-and-pop shops is James Martin's website, ikeafans.com. It's not affiliated with IKEA itself, but it addresses certain issues encountered by IKEA customers.
Mr. JAMES MARTIN (Co-founder, ikeafans.com): For some reason, some people have difficulty putting together IKEA furniture.
KASTE: So when those people are stuck with a half-built Hensvik bookshelf, they can come to Martin's website for help. He makes his living selling ad space. Ads that are tailored to the site's visitors based on information collected about them as they click around the site. And that's where Congress may step in.
One idea is that websites, like ikeafans.com, should prominently disclose the kind of data they collect. Martin says that would be bad for business.
Mr. MARTIN: It would kill it. It would kill it.
KASTE: He says his site respects users' privacy, but a disclosure notice would send the opposite message.
Mr. MARTIN: When they see a big warning, they're immediately going to assume that we're doing something nefarious.
KASTE: The disclosure requirement is part of a draft of a privacy bill that's expected to be introduced soon in the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet. Committee chairman Rick Boucher, a Democrat from Virginia, says his bill is not meant to scare off website customers. In fact, he's trying to give them more confidence.
Representative RICK BOUCHER (Democrat, Virginia; Chairman, House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet): 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.
KASTE: As the bill moves through Congress, the big fight will be over what the wonks call opt-in versus opt-out. Opt-in rules require your consent before your data is collected. Opt-out lets the website collect information until you say no. Civil liberties groups prefer opt-in -advertisers, opt-out.
So far, Boucher's draft bill splits the difference, applying opt-in only to more sensitive kinds of information.
Ms. LESLIE HARRIS (President and CEO, Center for Democracy & Technology): There's a lot of criticism of the bill.
KASTE: Leslie Harris is head of the Center for Democracy & Technology.
Ms. HARRIS: I will say this: Congressman Boucher has stepped up to start the conversation that everybody has been sort of unwilling to have on Capitol Hill, and that's a very important first step.
KASTE: There is a political risk here because the legislation affects more than just advertising. The behavioral data gathered by commercial websites has become a rich resource for law enforcement.
Ms. HARRIS: The government has fairly easy access to almost all this information that's being collected by companies online. So the consumer laws will also be important in limiting these, you know, honey pots that we're creating for the government.
KASTE: Following 9/11, Congress was reluctant to pass any legislation that might limit data available to investigators, but that reluctance is now fading. Harris says, for the first time in years, Internet privacy is no longer a partisan issue.
Martin Kaste, NPR News.
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