Privacy commission proposal gets an unenthusiastic reception

Privacy commission proposal gets an unenthusiastic reception

By Shruti Dat'

GCN Staff

Federal and state officials, as well as academics and industry leaders, last month expressed mixed reactions to a proposed Privacy Commission at back-to-back hearings on Capitol Hill.

The House Government Reform Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology held the forums on HR 4049, sponsored by Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-Ark.). The bill would create a 17-member privacy panel to conduct a review of the electronic use of information.

The Commission for the Comprehensive Study of Privacy Protection would examine, for example, just who has access to and use of medical and financial records, personal information transmitted via the Internet, and the use of Social Security numbers [GCN, May 8, Page 13].

'The administration's biggest concern with HR 4049 is the risk that some might use the commission as a reason to delay much-needed privacy legislation,' said John T. Spotila, administrator for the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

'In the administration's view, such a delay would be unwise,' Spotila said. 'If there is to be a commission, contrary to our recommendation, we should ensure that it focuses its efforts in an effective way.'

Spotila said it might be more productive to have technology and policy experts address specific emerging issues, rather than the commission's pursuit of a broad set of topics.

Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch also added some contention to the proposal.

'With all due respect, further study is not the proper course, given the volume of ink already spilled on the privacy subject as well as the volume of consumer outcry and violations,' Hatch said.

Hatch laid out three reasons not to establish a federal privacy commission.

' A privacy commission could delay enforcement and legislative action at the federal and state levels.

' The $2.5 million proposed commission would find out 'what everyone already knows: that companies collect a lot of information and disclose it without our knowledge.'

' Constituents do not want another study. They instead want 'real privacy protection now.'

A former White House official approved of the idea of a privacy commission.

'I note with interest that the legislation has been criticized by many in the privacy advocacy community as a proposal for a 'Privacy Procrastination Commission,'' said Robert R. Belair, former deputy counsel of the White House Committee on the Right to Privacy during the Ford administration.

'I do, however, think the work of the privacy commission will lead to better decisions about privacy,' said Belair, who also counseled the Office of Telecommunications Policy for the Carter White House as it undertook follow-up projects based on the recommendations of the original Privacy Protection Study Commission.

Because privacy has become a major domestic public policy issue, and developments relevant to privacy policy have moved with velocity and volatility, the privacy commission would be useful, he said.

'We still do not know nearly as much as we need to know about the nature of privacy threats posed in an online environment,' Belair said.

Mary J. Culnan, professor of electronic commerce at Georgetown University, supported establishing a commission but said she had some concerns about its scope and operations. Culnan recently authored the 1999 Georgetown Internet Privacy Policy Survey.

'While the commission's responsibilities are specified broadly, its usefulness will be short-lived if it only focuses on today's technologies and privacy issues and fails to address these emerging issues,' Culnan said.

The commission also needs to analyze pending state privacy legislation and workplace privacy issues.

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