These rules need a following

These are difficult times for the government's information super-highway. As the White House seems poised to forge full speed ahead with e-government initiatives, lawmakers want agencies to account for the information they gather in doing so.

Despite rules issued by the Office of Management and Budget last June directing agencies to stop secretly collecting visitor information from their Web sites, seven agencies operating 64 Web sites still use "persistent cookies," while dozens of others have yet to file reports. Persistent cookies are pieces of computer code planted on a user's computer by a Web site to track the user's movements.

There's no proof that this information is being used for nefarious purposes, but people still worry the government could use it to monitor individual activities. The government's insatiable appetite for personal data, irregular accounting for that data and the failure to post privacy policies on Web sites all have advocates and lawmakers poised for battle.

Advocates are pressing for a federal priv-acy chief, a post created by President Clinton and vacant since his administration ended. That might be a step in the right direction, but given the current administration's lack of enthusiasm for a federal chief information officer, support for a privacy czar may be long in coming.

That leaves privacy protection to the lawmakers. The Bush administration recently stood behind Clinton-era regul-ations to protect the privacy of medical records. And since the 107th Congress convened in January, more than 40 bills aimed at protecting citizens' privacy have been introduced.

As the demand — from citizens and the Bush administration — for online governmental services increases, it's imperative that those interactions are adequately protected.

A wired government was supposed to bring people closer to lawmakers, and thus make public officials more respons-ive. Those who suggest the privacy purists "vote with their mouse" and get off the Internet are missing the point.

A disenfranchised public is all too willing to tune out. Let's not encourage them to log off as well.

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