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FTC to ask Congress for Net-privacy oversight power

In an election year... surely you jest

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The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has at long last come to grasp what everyone else has known for years: that e-commerce remains belligerently unwilling to regulate itself and provide consumers with even a modicum of on-line privacy protection.

Starting this week, the Commission will reverse its longstanding, hands-off Internet policy and seek legislative action from Congress which would grant it oversight authority to include the regulation of privacy notices on Web sites, establishing guidelines for keeping personal data securely, and the power to punish companies that violate its regulations.

E-commerce front groups have whinged endlessly that government regulations mandating privacy protections would constitute a most un-American degree of meddling by Big Brother, and would impose an unfair burden on the industry by cutting further into its embarrassingly meagre profits.

Most often cited are a number of exaggerated operating costs associated with gearing up to provide levels of service which these companies ought to have been providing from day one; rarely acknowledged is the simple fact that violating consumers' privacy is an essential part of maintaining e-commercial revenue flows via parasitic marketing schemes too numerous to list.

The majority of Web users have already had more than enough and might be tempted to celebrate the FTC decision to listen at last. But the wobbly wheels of government have struggled onto the motorway just in time to be flattened by an onrushing convoy belonging to a political circus called the 2000 elections. The timing could not be worse.

A majority of Republicans and a significant minority of Democrats in Congress are certain to oppose the FTC request, cloaking themselves in their usual rhetoric of sparing a sacred and mysterious New Economy from the oppressive hand of government.

The truth is a bit more familiar and old-fashioned. Consider the fact that e-commerce is already habituated to making extended and hopelessly un-profitable capital burns. Consider also the endless financial demands of mounting a political campaign. Factor in a handy soft-money exception to campaign donation limits, and you have a recipe for keeping the Republican Party a vigilant ally stonewalling against any attempt to legislate on-line privacy.

At least until the election returns are in. Republicans will eventually have to buckle to popular demand; but for now, they're far more in need of cash than approval. With enough money in the war chest, the conventional wisdom goes, populist approval can be won with slick advertising. Little evidence exists in the annals of American electoral history to refute this presumption, so we are forced to acknowledge the wisdom of such a cynical approach.

However, The Register looks for the Republican Party to experience a sudden epiphany regarding Internet privacy rather soon after the 107th Congress is seated. ®

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