Is the entire debate over online privacy just a case of regulators and the Obama administration crying wolf?
That was the bombshell argument Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) dropped during the opening of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade’s sixth hearing on privacy.
“Before we do any possible harm to the Internet, we need to understand what harm is actually being done to consumers,” Bono Mack said. “Where is the public outcry for legislation? I haven’t gotten a single letter from anyone back home urging me to pass a privacy bill.”
For years, the federal government has pushed for some sort of privacy legislation, defining it as a right that was being run over by tracking and advertising practices on the Internet. The government finally issued its recommendations for a baseline privacy law in a report issued last month by the Commerce Department and in another report this week from the Federal Trade Commission. In recognition of the self-regulation success of the Internet advertising community, the government is also seeking a public-private approach to privacy through voluntary codes that would be enforceable by the FTC.
Characterizing Commerce’s “privacy bill of rights” as “so mom and apple pie,” Bono Mack, the chair of the subcommittee, was unconvinced any new regulation or legislation was necessary. The more skeptical big government GOP members followed her lead.
“We’re concerned about technology mandates and a do-not-track system. It could be used as a weapon to stifle innovation in the Internet,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). “Please identify the harm and then let’s talk about what needs to be done to address that harm.”
It was no surprise that Dems fell in line behind the administration’s calls for baseline legislation.
“It’s time for some real congressional movement on this issue,” said Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"These two reports provide a road map for accomplishing that," he said.
Both government witnesses—Jon Leibowitz, the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, and Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary for Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration—downplayed the concern that a baseline privacy law codifying the Commerce’s privacy bill of rights would overreach or harm the Internet.
“We don’t envision this as a complicated piece of legislation,” said Strickling. “The industry would find greater certainty.”
Leibowitz added that legislation is needed to fill in the gaps of self-regulation, which he said has been "erratic."
The ad industry argued that self-regulation can be a lot more nimble than any law. “We want to ensure enforceable codes of conduct. But instead of displacing self-regulation, we should build on it,” said Mike Zaneis, senior vp and general counsel for the Interactive Advertising Bureau, part of the Digital Advertising Alliance.