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More privacy enforcement needed

Better laws would be nice, but I’ll settle for enforcing current laws. 10/05 ReleVents hed: More privacy enforcement needed dek: Better laws would be nice, but I’ll settle for enforcing current laws. by James Mathewson

Regular readers know that I side against the majority when it comes to privacy legislation. Most IT folks are rather libertarian when it comes to laws regulating the Internet. They think the Internet should be a haven devoid of laws, taxes, or any other form of government intervention. They think it has policed itself just fine so far, so why add a bunch of bureaucracy to the system?

I think it’s just plain false that the Internet has policed itself well so far. In fact, it is the biggest haven for scam artists, hucksters, and swindlers since the Wild West. My view is simple: If it’s wrong and it causes harm to individuals, it should be illegal regardless of whether it happens on the Internet or not. In particular, I think we should have roughly the same privacy laws related to business practices that we do in the world of faxes, phones, and snail mail. The way it looks, online privacy laws are starting to catch up with the offline world. But we have a ways to go before we can be sure that our every click will not be tracked and compiled into some kind of marketing profile that can then be sold to the highest bidder. And though the laws themselves could use some bolstering, the biggest problem is the enforcement of existing laws, such as the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). The fact is, lots of sites gather and sell children’s information illegally and the only body that enforces it is the Federal Trade Association, which is woefully understaffed for the job.

For me then, news on our site today is generally positive. The story details an interview with FTC Chairman Timothy Muris in which Muris outlines his position on Internet privacy. When he was appointed, I thought it was a typical Bush appointee–arch-conservative and pro-business. I’m not anti-business, but I do think you can’t let business run roughshod over individuals. Anyway, given his pre-appointment statements, I thought he would squelch existing Internet privacy initiatives.

In that context, today’s statements are encouraging. In particular, he wants to increase enforcement of existing privacy laws by adding 18 new privacy cops to enforce COPPA and the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Financial Services Act, which protects us from banks illegally sharing our credit transactions. While he said he didn’t want new laws until he was confident we could enforce existing laws, he did not rule out new laws either. Unlike most of the libertarians who don’t have a clue about how rampant privacy infringement is on the Web, Muris has done the research and found that the Internet is rife with shady privacy policies. And the good news is, today’s statements indicate he has a willingness to do something about it.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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