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The Senate Commerce Committee held its first Internet privacy hearing under the chairmanship of Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., closely questioning privacy advocates and representatives from Microsoft, Amazon and EarthLink on Wednesday about the need for a new privacy law. “It is past time for action on this issue,” Hollings said. “This year, let’s finish the job.” The committee’s ranking member, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he remained “convinced that a federal law is needed.” Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that Congress will go further this year than passing a law mandating relatively weak privacy protections. Wednesday’s hearing revived in the Senate a once-hot policy issue that has been lying dormant there since the 107th Congress convened in January. Various committees in the House of Representatives have held privacy hearings, and several bills have been introduced in both houses of Congress to regulate both online and offline privacy protection. But so far, privacy has languished on the legislative priority list behind President George W. Bush’s tax cut and budget proposals, education and health care. That soon could change, especially if there are more episodes such as Eli Lilly’s recent accidental divulgence of the e-mail addresses of hundreds of Prozac users. The committee members wrestled with the question of what level of consent to require in legislation, and whether types of consent should vary according to the sensitivity of the data involved. There appears to be support for a bill that would pre-empt new state Internet privacy laws, a key desire of industry lobbyists. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., held up a copy of a software cookie file taken from his own personal computer that showed the trail of his Internet usage and declared he was “highly offended by what I have in front of me.” Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, called for a new law that, among other things, would not pre-empt the states and would give consumers a private right of legal action against companies that violate the law. Amazon.com executive Paul Misener said his company opposes state and local online privacy laws, and that it would support only a federal bill that pre-empts states and bars a private right of action. Most of the Democrats on the committee at least put in an appearance, but many of the Republican members were no-shows. Any legislation that comes to pass would have to clear the Republican-controlled House and win the support of President Bush in addition to passing the Senate. Timothy Muris, the new Federal Trade Commission chairman, has signaled that the FTC, which last year asked Congress to pass a new privacy law, is stepping back from that advocacy role. That all makes it likely that any measure that becomes law this year wouldn’t go much further than mandating Web site privacy policies and the chance for users to decline to have their information shared, and pre-empting new state laws. But Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., warned the private sector to get behind some form of privacy legislation before events overtook their interests. Wyden said, “No one on this committee wants an Exxon Valdez of privacy” and further told company representatives present that “if that tragedy takes place, you will not like the response that comes from the United States Senate, as sure as night follows day.” Related Articles from The Industry Standard: VeriSign to Enhance Security for Microsoft’s .Net VeriSign to Join Microsoft’s Hailstorm More Employers Monitoring Workers’ E-Mail, Web Use Copyright � 2001 The Industry Standard

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