Privacy shifts to legislation

Overwhelmingly, Americans think the Internet is endangering their privacy. Congress is listening. In less than three months, more than 40 bills dealing with privacy have been introduced in the House and Senate.

President Bush is listening, too. After rolling back Clinton administration regulations on water and air quality and workplace safety, Bush opted not to ease Clinton regulations designed to guard the privacy of medical records.

The privacy debate used to revolve around whether the federal government should regulate privacy or whether the Internet industry could police itself, said Frank Torres, legislative counsel for the Consumers Union. Since 1997, self- policing has prevailed, but that is likely to end. "Self-regulation has been a failure," Torres said during a seminar April 16 at George Washington University. Even the Federal Trade Commission, which previously favored industry self-regulation, has concluded that Internet companies are generally not voluntarily adhering to fair information practices, he said.

"We need some basic legislation," said Robert Atkinson, director of the Technology and New Economy Project at the Progressive Policy Institute. But he's leery of heavy-handed regulation. If Congress passes legislation "that shuts down the flow of information," it may destroy the already fragile economic foundation of the Internet, he said.

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