Government is still more talk than walk on Net privacy issue

Shawn P. McCarthy

Last month saw lots of Internet wheel-spinning in the government, but little traction.

There was plenty of infighting at the Advisory Commission on Electronic Commerce, which was created by Congress through the 1998 Internet Tax Freedom Act.

Some commission members favor keeping the ban on Internet-related taxes; others want to encourage states to tax Internet sales and some services. The commission is supposed to issue a report this month, and its loose rules require a two-thirds majority for official recommendations. Without some compromises, the members may end up making no recommendations. You can track what the commission is or isn't doing at

Meanwhile, the 16 congressionally appointed members of the Child Online Protection Act advisory commission have no office and no real budget. The commission, which was established by the Child Online Protection Act (COPA), borrowed a meeting room at the Commerce Department. It has met officially only once.

No results yet

The COPA commission's members are supposed to evaluate high-tech tools and other ways to keep online pornography away from children. No single recommendation seems to be forthcoming from the group, however. The full COPA is downloadable from

In the wake of Internet denial-of-service attacks, Attorney General Janet Reno last month asked for new powers to fight cybercrime. Now civil liberties groups are objecting to Reno's desire to modify current laws to let the Justice Department issue national warrants for Internet investigations. Investigators currently must get warrants state by state.

The central controversy is over the department's finding that a lack of identification mechanisms for Internet users is an ongoing problem.

Reno wants such mechanisms built in. Justice considers current laws governing Internet crimes to be inadequate and is seeking ways to help officials track down Net criminals. You can see the full cybercrime report at

Set-top computers and Web access devices don't just show online content, they can tell content providers a great deal about their audiences. That doesn't play well in California, where personal viewing habits and privacy are taken seriously.

State Sen. Debra Bowen has introduced legislation to prevent cable and satellite television providers from selling data about what viewers watch, with a $500 fine as the penalty.

More state legislatures likely will take up the privacy issue as cable access to subscription services increases. Details of the bill are at

Makes census

The Census Bureau hopes online forms will boost the response rate for Census 2000. Only about 65 percent of the population responded by mail to the 1990 census.

The site, at, shows a decision tree where visitors can confirm which type of paper form they received and submit their information online. Each short form has a 22-digit identification number that must be entered online; there is no online option for the long census form.

A secure connection should alleviate privacy concerns for those wary about the amount of data the government wants to collect.

Senate Banking Committee chairman Phil Gramm (R-Texas) has tabled legislation that would make it easier for U.S. companies to export high-end computers and some encryption programs.

The pending legislation would have let U.S. companies ship so-called low-risk information technology products to most foreign countries without needing a special license. Details of what might have been are at

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at [email protected].


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