Key IT trade group now willing to support federal privacy laws

Fearing the possibility of having to contend with Internet privacy laws that differ from state to state, a key technology industry trade association today said it would be willing to support federal legislation as long as it overrides any regulations passed on the state level.

The announcement by the Washington-based American Electronics Association, which now goes by the name AeA, was included on a list of eight privacy principles that the trade group asked the U.S. Congress to consider as it examines potential laws governing online data privacy.

AeA spokesman Marc Brailov said the association would only support federal legislation if it mandates a uniform set of rules throughout the U.S. But even that is a big change in policy by the AeA, which previously argued that federal privacy laws weren't needed because self-regulation by companies was adequate enough to quell privacy concerns.

Now, though, with more and more states considering the passage of individual privacy laws because of pressure from consumers and other advocates, Brailov said the AeA and its members decided it was time to re-evaluate the group's stance.

"This is a new position because there's a new environment," Brailov said. "The states have been taking the lead [on privacy legislation]. If [we] have to deal with 50 sets of privacy rules, both consumers and businesses will suffer and obviously so will e-commerce."

The AeA, which is the nation's largest electronics trade association, also wants its other principles to be considered and endorsed within any federal privacy legislation. For example, the group is calling for new laws to include requirements spelling out the need for companies to provide notices about how they plan to collect and use personal information via their Web sites.

The AEA said Internet users also should be given "opt out" mechanisms that let them prevent any information they provide to a company from being used for purposes other than ones that have been specified upfront. It added that users "should be allowed to receive benefits and services from vendors in exchange for the use of [their] information."

However, the trade group argued that no new enforcement authorities would be needed to ensure that companies comply with any federal privacy mandates. Instead, the AeA said, the Federal Trade Commission should use its existing enforcement powers to monitor corporate privacy compliance.

Brailov said the AeA isn't backing off of its long-held view that industry self-regulation on data privacy is successful and should continue. But the association is willing to accept federal legislation in order to head off a possible onslaught of state laws, he added.

Not all technology industry groups have come to the same conclusion, though. Bob Cohen, a senior vice president at the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) in Arlington, Va., said self-regulation is working fine and doesn't need not to be replaced by federal laws.

"We don't see the need for new legislation and regulations," Cohen said. "The market is the best arbiter." He added that large e-commerce companies are governing themselves through "the widespread use of privacy notifications on [their] Web sites."

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Copyright © 2001 IDG Communications, Inc.

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