Senate’s Privacy Hearing Draws Many Spectators, Few Lawmakers

There was a packed house for the hearing that the Senate Commerce Committee held about online privacy Wednesday. At least, it was packed with spectators. Most senators, on the other hand, appeared not to care. Though 25 senators are members of the committee, only three showed, and by the end, only Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., was left. Yet, make no mistake, it will be the Senate that leads online privacy legislation.
 
Though several bills have been introduced on the House side, everyone involved in the issue is waiting for Kerry’s bill, which has been in the works now since last summer.

Kerry ended up running the hearing solo toward the end of the proceedings, which gave him time to ask questions on areas that still need work in his bill. Before that, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., stood in for Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who was absent. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also asked a few questions and warned about the potential for regulation to have “unintended consequences” for business on the Internet. “I want to make sure we don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg,” she said.

Kerry said he hoped to introduce legislation “in short order.” “I hope we can get a product that everyone says they can live with and gives the consumer a set of choices,” he said. “We can’t let the status quo stand.”

His legislation will take its cues from Federal Trade Commission and Commerce Department reports which proposed a Do Not Track mechanism and a “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” respectively. Both FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz and Lawrence Strickling, assistant secretary for communications and information for the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, were on hand to advocate for some sort of overarching law, even as the ad industry makes progress on the self-regulation front.

The industry seems to have accepted that legislation is inevitable and is now just concerned with making sure it doesn’t do significant damage to their business. Microsoft, whose new Internet Explorer browser contains a “Do Not Track” mechanism (they call it a tracking protection feature), took the opportunity to actually endorse legislation. “Legislation is needed because the current approach confused consumers,” said Erich Andersen, the company’s deputy general counsel.

The online ad industry’s attitude about legislation is being helped by the fact that it has a seat at the table. “We need one solution for the consumer,” John Montgomery—chief operating officer of GroupM Interaction who represented the Digital Advertising Alliance at the hearing— said afterward. “We’ll work with Congress on what they codify. Our motives are the same. Our program was designed around the FTC. I’m not worried.”