Online Privacy Debate Reemerges in Congress

Lobbying numbers are in, Facebook is under scrutiny and online privacy is on the horizon in both the House and the Senate. And, with that, the new Congress has arrived. Here's the latest you should know on what's buzzing in the nation's capital now...

Lobbying numbers are in, Facebook is under scrutiny and online privacy is on the horizon in both the House and the Senate. And, with that, the new Congress has arrived. Here’s the latest you should know on what’s buzzing in the nation’s capital now…

Before you dig into the latest, check our reporting here, here and here on what’s important in Washington and how you can stay in touch with the latest legislative news.


In the House, aides to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) have confirmed plans to reintroduce his online privacy legislation next week. Rush’s bill from the 111th Congress would have allowed websites and other firms to collect online user information if they provided clear notice about the information being collected and its use, and gave consumers an opportunity to opt out. The bill also mandated that third parties obtain consent before using consumer information and included a safe harbor clause for companies that agreed to comply with a self-regulatory program approved by the Federal Trade Commission. Rush has said he is now leaning towards adding a do-not-track provision to his bill, no doubt in response to recent action by the FTC on that very topic. Rush’s bill garnered industry support from the likes of Intel, eBay and Microsoft last year.

Last year’s Congress also saw a competing bill drafted by Reps. Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Cliff Stearns (D-Fla) that Politico reports is now “moving forward aggressively” and “draws heavy influence” from the earlier proposal. No word yet, however, on the fate of a bill promised by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) focused on protecting children online.

With Republicans now in control of the House, also still in the air is the question of who will lead the party on privacy. Two likely contenders are Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), who got out front this year with a “dear colleague” pledging to focus on the issue, and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), the current co-chairman of the privacy caucus.

In the Senate, Politico also reports that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) is expected to introduce his privacy proposal by the end of February.


Politico also has the exclusive that Congress is digging into Facebook’s latest feature that would open users’ home addresses, phone numbers and personal information to websites and app developers.

Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) delivered a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg today requesting more information. The feature has been on hold since mid-January, when it was roundly criticized after being announced, but Facebook raised the stakes again with plans to re-enable it upon further development. The letter reportedly asks, among other things: “Why is Facebook, after previously acknowledging in their November 3 response to our October 19 letter that sharing a Facebook User ID could raise concerns, subsequently considering sharing access to even more sensitive personal information such as home addresses and phone numbers to third parties? And did they take into account possible risks to children and teens?”


If nothing makes a splash in Washington like big lobbying money, then social media companies just jumped in with a cannonball, according to just-released 2010 figures. Google alone spent $5.16 million, in 2010 a 28 percent increase from last year’s total of $4.03 million, according to the Lobbying Disclosure Act Database. The online search engine giant company lobbied Congress on issues from the Internet freedom push from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to cloud computing, intellectual property, data privacy, and Google’s pending acquisition of ITA Software.

Facebook, meanwhile, spent $351,390 on lobbying in 2010, perhaps a sign the company realizes it needs to be proactive in the face of wary members of Congress. Other tech company expenditures in 2010 include Microsoft at $6.91 million, Apple at $1.61 million, AT&T at $15.39 million, Verizon at $16.75 million, and Intel at $3.68 million.