House Hearing on Consumer Privacy


“It’s the reputational harm that we are all concerned about,” said Chairwoman Mary Bono Mack (R-CA) at today’s hearing, the fourth in a series of hearings on online privacy.  Members of U.S. House’s Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade were in disagreement over how to best protect consumers online as consumer attitudes toward privacy evolve.

“The DNA of this data is very powerful. It really is the lifeblood of a thriving Internet economy,” said Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). The “foundation for policy should be flexible” and “protect against real harms,” she said. Congresswoman Blackburn supports an industry self regulation, as it is more nimble to change as the environment of the internet changes. Many members of the panel agreed with her.

“We support baselines rules of the road established by industry self-regulation,” said Michael Hintze, Associate General Counsel at Microsoft. Rep. Gonzalez (D-TX) praised Microsoft on their recent privacy efforts, stating that they are “on the right track with ‘Do Not Track.’” Congressman Gonzalez emphasized that the exchange of data for free content does constitute a trade agreement, which is okay as long as consumers are educated and aware of what is happening, with the ability to opt out.

“Consumers just don’t know what the risks out there are,” said Pam Dixon, Executive Director at the World Privacy Forum. With regard to opt-out choice mechanisms, Dixon noted that there has been some progress but the industry needs to be even more transparent by communicating to consumers exactly what they are opting out of. Ms. Dixon supports a baseline national privacy law, along with the Ranking Member, Congressman Butterfield (D- NC).

Cliff Stearns (R-FL) expressed his desire for “one big button” to opt out as a consumer. Congressman Stearns, who has privacy bill, HR1528, was also concerned that privacy policies exist around the world and not in the United States, creating a vulnerability for US consumers.

Members questioned the panel members opposed to regulation about the benchmarks that would be needed to make self-regulation work. The overwhelming response: more consumer education efforts.

“Consumers ought to be part of the self-regulation process so that they can give us direct feedback,” said Dixon.

Overall it was a very cordial hearing; everyone wants to protect consumers in the online marketplace. Still, to better understand the state of consumer privacy, it would be helpful to see more evidence that supports the notion that consumers understand how their information is used and the choices available to them.