Byline: Joanna Ramey

WASHINGTON — Protecting consumers’ personal data gleaned from their Web purchases and visits online is the latest e-commerce controversy facing Congress — and one that won’t likely be settled anytime soon.
At issue is whether industry efforts on Internet privacy will be enough to police cyberspace, as various Web companies advocate, but which several lawmakers contend aren’t enough.
“Many consider this type of tracking akin to stalking,” said Senate Commerce Committee member Max Cleland (D., Ga.), at a hearing Thursday on the matter.
Even committee Chairman John McCain (R., Az.), who said he was otherwise “fairly impressed with the number of Web sites that provide privacy protection,” questioned whether other sites intentionally confuse consumers into agreeing to share their information. He noted several sites currently offer pages and pages of privacy disclosure information, with the possible effect of obfuscating the sites’ actual policy.
“I think this is a serious problem for a Web site to advertise it will protect your privacy, and they have all this mumbo jumbo,” McCain said.
The Senate committee’s hearing followed the release last week by the Federal Trade Commission of its third Internet privacy report, in which it asked Congress to pass extensive Internet consumer-privacy legislation.
Testifying before the committee Thursday, FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky said the agency, at the minimum, needs Congress to require Web sites to notify users how information about them might be used. He said consumers, as well as the growth of the Internet, will benefit. The agency also wants Congress to spell out what these privacy notices should say.
“Without such protections, electronic commerce will not reach its full potential and consumers will not gain the confidence they need in order to participate fully in the online marketplace,” Pitofsky said.
There is already one bill in the House and Senate calling for mandatory privacy disclosures, and McCain is expected to submit a third measure soon. In the House, at least one member of the Republican leadership, Majority Leader Dick Armey (R., Tex.), has publicly said he is against Congress mandating Internet privacy terms.
Mallory Duncan, vice president and general counsel with the National Retail Federation, called the privacy debate “a volatile issue” and political “crowd pleaser,” which, for the time being, likely won’t advance in Congress beyond the hearing stage.
“We are afraid that if you start dictating to a company that you have to have a privacy notice, the next step is the FTC telling you what to put in those policies,” Duncan said.