Ira Magaziner: U.S. at odds with EU Net privacy directive

Many Netizens fear the European Union's proposed strict privacy rules for Web sites, set to take effect October 25, could mean big problems for U.S.

Many Netizens fear the European Union's proposed strict privacy rules for Web sites, set to take effect October 25, could mean big problems for U.S. businesses. But President Clinton's top technology adviser said here Monday that Europeans themselves are far from consensus on the proposal.

While negotiations with EU governments are on hold until next month, Clinton administration officials believe they can be induced to consider a more market-driven approach to protecting consumers' online privacy, Ira Magaziner, the senior adviser to the president on high-tech issues, said at the Progress & Freedom Foundation's Cyberspace and the American Dream conference. "It needs to be pointed out that so far only three of the 15 EU nations have passed any kind of law" that adheres to the proposed guidelines, which say Internet users must give "unambiguous" prior consent for personal data to be collected and used by Web site operators, Magaziner said.

The US favours encouraging -- but not mandating -- Web sites to tell visitors how their data will be used and to give them the opportunity to refuse to divulge it, or to stipulate that the data only be used in certain ways. This approach would encourage Internet users to patronise sites where they receive the level of privacy that they are most comfortable with, Magaziner said. "While European governments are undeniably concerned about providing safeguards for personal data in cyberspace, they also recognise that any EU-wide policy that is seriously at odds with U.S. policy could mean damage to their economies, he said.

"The EU does not want to break down trade barriers with the U.S.," Magaziner said in an interview following his address. "Obviously, I can't say for sure what will happen, but I feel fairly confident that we can make it clear that self-regulation appears to be in all of our best interests."

Magaziner also outlined the progress made by the administration in advancing its digital agenda, and pointed to several areas where he said efforts have fallen short. In the areas of taxes and tariffs, content controls, and authentication and digital signatures, the Clinton adviser said that significant headway has been made toward a consensus in Congress and among many foreign nations.

But much work and contentious debate, both at home and abroad, remain on the issues of encryption, bridging the "digital divide" between wealthy and poorer Americans, improving technology education both at the grade K-12 and college levels, and in deregulating the telecommunications and broadcast industries, Magaziner said.

"The reasons we originally regulated the telecommunications and broadcast industries no longer exist," he said. In order to hasten the convergence of telecommunications, broadcast and Internet services, and to drive greater bandwidth to the home, "The best thing to do would be to just let market competition take over," Magaziner said.

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