Why Senators Want Control Over Online Privacy

A turf war is brewing in the U.S. Senate over who gets to control and regulate online privacy. The brewing battle shows why key senators on key committees now care about an issue long a concern to consumers: online privacy touches almost all Americans, and it's now the hot, new issue on Capitol Hill.

A turf war is brewing in the U.S. Senate over who gets to control and regulate online privacy. The brewing battle shows why key senators on key committees now care about an issue long a concern to consumers: online privacy touches almost all Americans, and it’s now the hot, new issue on Capitol Hill.

The battle began with a letter from the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) to the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing their opinion that online privacy legislation falls under jurisdiction of the Commerce Committee.

In a letter to Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Ranking Member Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Sens. Rockefeller and Hutchison say they are “concerned about the description of the (Judiciary Privacy Technology and the Law) Subcommittee on the Judiciary Committee website and are puzzled insofar as the jurisdiction described appears to be beyond the scope of the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee.”

The subcommittee in question is the new Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and Law announced in February by Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy, with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) serving as chairman and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) as ranking member.

According to the subcommittee’s website, the new panel will focus on providing oversight of privacy issues related to social networks, online advertising and emerging technologies, among other areas.

The subcommittee’s jurisdiction is formally described as:

“(1) Oversight of laws and policies governing the collection, protection, use and dissemination of commercial information by the private sector, including online behavioral advertising, privacy within social networking websites and other online privacy issues; (2) Enforcement and implementation of commercial information privacy laws and policies; (3) Use of technology by the private sector to protect privacy, enhance transparency and encourage innovation; (4) Privacy standards for the collection, retention, use and dissemination of personally identifiable commercial information; and (5) Privacy implications of new or emerging technologies.”

The formation of the committee reportedly blindsided Commerce committee members, who had already begun drafting online privacy legislation.

“We are concerned about the description of the Subcommittee on the Judiciary Committee website and are puzzled insofar as the jurisdiction described appears to be beyond the scope of the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee under the Senate Rule XXV,” wrote Sens. Rockefeller and Hutchison.

“Legislation related to such matters lie squarely within the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee…As you undoubtedly know, the Senate Commerce Committee for many years has focused on attention on the need to protect consumers’ privacy interests.”

The senators also attached a copy of the rules of the Senate laying out the duties of the respective committees, bolding relevant assignments, including “regulation of consumer products and services” and “communications.”

The prickly debate not only shows the growing recognition by senators of online privacy as an issue that touches almost all their constituents, but also arises as privacy legislation moves ahead in both houses of Congress.

Just this month, Sens. John McCain and John Kerry circulated draft legislation to create an “online privacy bill of rights,” and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) announced he would also introduce draft privacy legislation soon.

Those moves come after the Federal Trade Commission, the Commerce Department and other individual legislators have already pushed for and endorsed similar privacy rules.

A Judiciary Committee aide told Tech Daily Dose the committee has received the letter and is reviewing it.

“The Judiciary Committee has worked on privacy related issues – criminal, civil and consumer protection – for decades, including Sen. Leahy’s data privacy legislation,” the aide said. “We’ve also coordinated with the Commerce Committee on these issues for decades” and Leahy plans to continue to collaborate.