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Washington saddles up in Quixotic pursuit of on-line privacy

The war on cookies, and other exploits

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It was an entertaining week on Capitol Hill. Inspired to action by opinion polls which cite privacy fears as America's chief gripe with the Internet and the Information Revolution, Congress responded with a flurry of hastily run-up proposals to preserve the Netizen's false sense of on-line security. To begin, Senator Robert Torricelli (Democrat, New Jersey) unveiled a most bizarre plan that would outlaw the use of cookies without the surfer's express prior permission. "The fundamental right to privacy should not be sacrificed to the Information Age," Torricelli said via a prepared statement. Fair enough, but cookies have a score of non-commercial uses -- storing passwords, keeping track of visits so that pages can be updated appropriately, and recording a user's viewing options and preferences, to name but a few. There is also the aggravation to a user of deliberately having to accept cookies every time a site proffers one. Surely the issue is what a Web site may do with the information it stores in a cookie, not whether or not they may drop one on a person's hard drive. The Register predicts that this little legislative gem is destined to be laughed off the Senate floor, unless it receives a significant overhaul. Meanwhile, Senator Tom Daschle (Democrat, South Dakota) announced the formation of what he calls a Senate Democratic Privacy Task Force. (We are not at present absolutely clear on the distinction between a Congressional "task force" and, say, a Congressional "committee" or a "caucus" [both of which we do understand to have particular meanings], but we will continue listening for hints.) "Some of our most sensitive, private details end up on databases that are then sold to the highest bidder....That is wrong, it's dangerous, and it has to stop," Daschle said, also by way of a statement. Senator Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) is expected to head up the panel, or whatever it is. But wait, there's more. Senator Richard Shelby (Republican, Alabama) and Representative Edward Markey (Democrat, Massachusetts) also threw their hats into the ring, announcing the formation of a bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus consisting of both Senate and House Members. "Families...do not want complete strangers buying and selling their personal profiles like currency," Shelby noted. Privacy concerns are strongest among America's most conservative politicians, who resent any meddling suggestive of an Orwellian government presence, and among those most liberal, who typically delight in thwarting the ambitions of Big Business. Shelby is a conservative Republican from the deep South; Markey is a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. Yet both argued vehemently, indeed passionately, against a bill last November which made it possible for medical insurers, banks and securities firms (hence their databases) to be merged. Thus Shelby and Markey, ideological strangers on most issues, will serve as co-chairmen of the new caucus. On the regulatory front, the citizen watchdog group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) against Web marketing firm DoubleClick. The complaint follows the merger of DoubleClick and Abacus Direct, a catalog database firm. DoubleClick intends to correlate anonymous Internet profiles in their database with the personal information contained in the Abacus database, EPIC maintains. The group is asking the FTC to investigate the practice, to destroy all records wrongfully obtained, and to invoke civil penalties against the company. The FTC has not as yet indicated whether or not it will launch an investigation. So there you have it. Task forces here, caucuses there all going off at cross purposes, silly proposals to restrict cookies, conservatives and liberals joining hands, grassroots organizations and well-heeled corporate lobbyists colliding.... Looks like a splendid session is shaping up. ®

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