With about 50 bills that have something to do with privacy already introduced in the 107th Congress, at least one rhetorical campaign has started to gain momentum: Industry partisans from trade organizations to Microsoft have latched onto an argument that if Congress wants to deal with privacy at all, it should not focus on the Internet, but deal with the issue of consumer data in its entirety.
"When you walk into a Nordstrom and buy something, you don't have to sign a privacy agreement first. When you walk into a pharmacy and they know you and they start filling out your prescription before you even hand it to them, you don't have to sign a privacy agreement. That's just basic business," said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America. "The idea that you need special rules in the commercial world if a transaction is done on the Net and you don't need them in the offline world never made sense to me, and I'm glad more people are realizing it."
Among other things, at issue is whether federal law will dictate whether online businesses must get explicit permission from consumers to collect and sell data about them, or if they can collect and sell information about consumers freely unless they are forbidden by consumers to do so.
Consumer data is valuable, and its use saves U.S. businesses billions of dollars every year.
Broadening legislation to include offline businesses as well as online businesses would grind legislation to a halt, because the combination of offline and online commerce is much more complicated when it comes to privacy. Bills guiding the myriad relationships between consumers and businesses in the offline world would be unlikely to pass.
Rick Lane, director of e-commerce and Internet technology at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, welcomed the argument, saying it is something he has long been concerned with.
But John McCarthy, a program director who studies government technology policy at Forrester Research, said corraling offline commerce into the debate is nothing more than an attempt to exterminate privacy legislation. "The industry is rolling the dice and going for broader legislation in hopes of killing the whole thing," McCarthy said. "They're talking out of both sides of their mouths."