Seeking to prevent California and a handful of other states from enacting strict Internet privacy laws, House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin, R-La., yesterday said he would seek to introduce and pass a federal electronic privacy package soon after Congress returns from its holiday break.
Speaking to reporters following his luncheon keynote at a high-tech conference here, Tauzin said that it was vital for Congress to move on federal privacy language before any state legislatures enact their own rules.
"If we already have a law passed or on its way ... that defines what you can't do in terms of state law, you prevent a situation from arising" in which Internet companies must obey a patchwork of local regulations, Tauzin said.
If California and a few other states that have been pondering privacy legislation move before the federal government, Internet privacy rules could end up being determined by "a thousand different governments at the state local and federal level," Tauzin contended.
Tauzin said that it would be possible, if necessary, for Congress to override state privacy measures after the fact, but added that it would be far easier to enact a law preempting state privacy measures before legislatures in California and elsewhere have a chance to act.
Tauzin said that Rep. Cliff stearns, R-Fla., who chairs the Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection, was working on draft legislation that would include both Internet privacy and electronic security components.
That bill could be introduced sometime in early January, Tauzin said.
In October, stearns issued an outline detailing his vision for a federal privacy bill. In that document, stearns loosely proposes a federal law that would set baseline privacy standards for commercial Web sites.
Many privacy advocates blasted stearns' privacy outline, arguing that it met nearly every demand of the high-tech industry while meeting virtually none of the demands of the privacy community.
"One could reasonably look at the stearns proposal and say 'we'd be better off without legislation,'" Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) Legislative Counsel Chris Hoofnagle said today.
The stearns outline proposes an "opt-out" standard, under which consumers would bear the burden of asking commercial Web sites not to collect and sell their personally identifiable data. Most hard-line privacy advocates favor an "opt-in" standard that would require Web sites to ask permission before collecting and selling consumers' personal information.
stearns also recommends that consumers not be given a private right of action to sue Web sites for privacy violations - a right that privacy advocates contend is vital to ensuring corporate compliance with privacy rules.
But perhaps the most significant proposal included in stearns' outline is the one he lists first: "1. Preempt state laws in so far as that law relates to the collection, processing, use, disclosure/dissemination, and sale of personally identifiable information in the stream of commerce and as described in this Act."
Hoofnagle today said that Tauzin and stearns would have a tough time winning quick passage for a privacy law if they insisted on including state preemption.
"If federal legislators get on the preemption boat, they are likely to anger their comrades in the state legislatures," Hoofnagle said.
Regardless of their party affiliations, state and local lawmakers bristle at the notion that Congress may prevent them from passing laws in their home jurisdictions, Hoofnagle said.
But Tauzin and other supporters of a state preemption clause argue that such a measure is essential to ensure that fundamentally global Internet commerce not become governed by a "crazy quilt" of local laws and rules.
stearns' privacy outline is on his Web site at www.house.gov/stearns/pr011012.htm.
--Reported by David McGuire, Newsbytes.com, www.newsbytes.com . .