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Congress' Online Privacy Gridlock Could Stall Regulation

Parade of bills, hearings might be good news for tech companies
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WASHINGTON—Executives from Google, Apple, and Facebook returned to the Senate side of Capitol Hill Thursday for the second hearing on privacy in as many weeks. With two online privacy bills already introduced in this Congress and a third being worked on by Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., who chairs the subcommittee that held Thursday's hearing, the halls of Congress are going to become a home away from home for the tech giants.

"I can assure you this won't be your last visit," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., who introduced his online privacy bill, the"Do Not Track Online Act," earlier this month. 

Though the Internet companies may have their patter down to a science, the committee has a lot of work to do in order to reconcile as many as three bills from three prominent members of Congress. A month before Rockefeller introduced his bill, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., introduced one of his own, which is co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. And then there's Pryor, who is focused on children's privacy. 

"I'd say we're all working together," Pryor said after the hearing. "I haven't signed on to any legislation yet. That doesn't mean I oppose it, nor does it mean I have a better bill. It just means that we're all going to work together. This is probably going to be a big team effort. I wouldn't be surprised it it's rolled into one bill or the effort was made to do that." Pryor wouldn't even guess at a timetable for when the committee might get to the bills.

All the activity on the Hill could give Internet companies and the advertising community some breathing room to get privacy policies of their own in place. If they can put together a convincing regime of self-regulation, they might be able to forestall harsher regulation by the government.

"[The program] seems to be on the right track, but until we have a little more experience on it and know how it's really working, the jury is still out," Pryor said. "You always have that issue of one bad actor or a small set of bad actors out there that ruin it for everyone else."