Online Privacy Advocates Charge Congress With “Digital Xenophobia”

Groups angry over hearing title

Online privacy advocates are steaming over a House subcommittee hearing scheduled for Thursday on "the impact and burden of EU regulation." They say it represents nothing short of "digital xenophobia."

It's the word "burden" in the hearing title that has ruffled the feathers of the eight consumer organizations in the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, a forum that aims to influence U.S. and EU policy, which dashed off a letter Wednesday to Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R.-Calif., chair of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, and ranking member Rep. George Butterfield, D-N.C.

The hearing Thursday will be the first of a series planned by the committee to address online privacy ahead of final reports expected later this year from the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Commerce, as well as a white paper outlining the Obama administration's position that's likely to come out in the next few weeks.  

"Congress is trying to make digital privacy 'freedom fries'—where the EU becomes a dirty word," said Jeffrey Chester, the executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, which is part of the TACD. "Many online data mining companies are apoplectic that the EU actually asks hard and appropriate questions on their privacy related practices, something our Federal Trade Commission should do."

In the letter, the TACD, which last week blasted the advertising industry's self-regulatory online privacy program, says the EU should be held up as a model for new government regulations managed under the Federal Trade Commission. It asked that its letter be included in the hearing record.

"Given the widespread agreement across consumer organizations in both Europe and the United States that the United States lacks adequate privacy safeguards and that the US privacy laws lag woefully behind current technology and business practices, we expected a hearing that would focus on the lessons that the Congress might draw from the EU experience with data protection," wrote Julian Knott, TACD head of secretariat on behalf of the TACD steering committee.

The EU's Data Privacy Directive was adopted in 1995 in an effort to harmonize the different data privacy protections of its member countries. It requires all EU member states to enact national privacy legislation that satisfies certain baseline privacy principles. U.S. companies operate under a negotiated "safe harbor" arrangement where the Department of Commerce manages a list of firms that have met the safe harbor requirements. But big multi-national companies such as Google and Facebook continually face tougher EU requirements. One EU member country, Germany, has asked Facebook to remove its "like" button or face a hefty fine.