Senate “tussle” is good for privacy

Politico Thursday described a turf battle between two powerful Senate Committees over privacy — both have had hearings on smartphones and the mobile market — and quoted some people as saying the power struggle doesn’t bode well for needed privacy legislation.

I don’t agree. There can’t be anything better than having legislators compete to answer popular demand for better privacy protection. Hauling tech executives in and asking them to explain themselves never hurts. Twice in two weeks is even better.

Some turf-conscious policy wonks apparently don’t feel that way. In his article, “Senate tussles over online privacy,” Tony Romm wrote:

“When you have too many chefs in the kitchen, everyone trying to add their signature touch, it ends up being a dish no one wants to eat,” the Senate aide said.

Romm chronicles how the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Commerce Committee are both asserting jurisdiction. The tussle got started when Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahey named Sen. Al Franken to chair a new Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.

That prompted a letter from Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison saying they were “puzzled” by the new committee’s mandate, suggesting it encroached on their turf.

In the sort of inside-the-Beltway drama that delights policy wonks, Franken was the first to call a hearing on smartphones (I call them spy-phones) and the mobile market. That was last week.

Rockefeller decided to hold a similar hearing this week. He also decided to introduce his Do Not Track legislation the day before Franken’s hearing. Politco described Rockefeller’s timing “as a warning shot across the bow.”

Meanwhile, at Rockefeller’s Thursday hearing an interesting bit of testimony came from David Vladeck, Chief of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. He said that while the commission has not taken a position on whether Do Not Track legislation is needed, it “supports the fundamental goals of this legislation – to provide transparency and consumer choice regarding tracking.”

While the inter-committee jockeying for power makes great conversation at Georgetown cocktail parties, as I said before, I think it’s also great for privacy. More hearings mean more attention is focused on the issue. Rockefeller’s Do Not Track Bill grabbed headlines. Franken’s hearing got headlines. Thursday’s Commerce hearing was covered widely.

Forcing tech companies to explain themselves and how they approach privacy is a good thing. It’s great, when Sen. Rockefeller tells representatives of Google, Apple and Facebook that he’s glad they’re there and adds, “I can assure this

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won’t be your last visit.” I just hope next time it’s the CEOs.

Senate competition on privacy efforts reflects a realization on the part of the politicians that people care about their privacy. Our poll found 90 percent want online privacy legislation enacted.

When politicians are competing to get something done, it’s much more likely to happen.

Published by John M. Simpson

John M. Simpson is a leading voice on technological privacy and stem cell research issues. His investigations this year of Google’s online privacy practices and book publishing agreements triggered intense media scrutiny and federal interest in the online giant’s business practices. His critique of patents on human embryonic stem cells has been key to expanding the ability of American scientists to conduct stem cell research. He has ensured that California’s taxpayer-funded stem cell research will lead to broadly accessible and affordable medicine and not just government-subsidized profiteering. Prior to joining Consumer Watchdog in 2005, he was executive editor of Tribune Media Services International, a syndication company. Before that, he was deputy editor of USA Today and editor of its international edition. Simpson taught journalism a Dublin City University in Ireland, and consulted for The Irish Times and The Gleaner in Jamaica. He served as president of the World Editors Forum. He holds a B.A. in philosophy from Harpur College of SUNY Binghamton and was a Gannett Fellow at the Center for Asian and Pacific Studies at the University of Hawaii. He has an M.A. in Communication Management from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication.

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