Congressman Readies New Internet Regulations

Published November 29, 2009

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, has revealed plans for an ambitious agenda for greater regulation of the Internet, especially in the area of privacy.

In an interview in October with The Hill newspaper, Boucher said he wants to introduce legislation to limit the amount of information companies such as Facebook and Google could collect from consumers through so-called behavior advertising.

Boucher also is looking to reform the Universal Service Fund (USF), the pool of money to which telecom companies pay fees to provide services to libraries, schools, and underserved geographical areas.

Informing Consumers

“The aim [of new privacy legislation] is to give consumers a better sense that their online information is secure and that they know what information is collected, how that information is used, and that they will have controls over that,” Boucher told The Hill.

“I think that greater sense of confidence will lead to a greater willingness to trust the Internet and engage in greater volumes of e-commerce and commercial transactions,” Boucher said. “I think the best way to do that is to give people better sense that their privacy is protected.”

But that doesn’t mean consumers always will be given the choice of whether to opt in to have their information protected, Boucher said.

“There would be a combination of opt-in and opt-out, depending on what the information is and how it would be used. We’re still working on that balance,” Boucher said. “The key elements are going to be that every Web site will have to disclose every piece of information that they collect from visitors and how that information is used by the Web site that collects it. And then users should have control over that process.”

Self-Regulation Preferred

Michael Blum, partner in the IP Group and chairman of the Privacy and Information Security Group for San Francisco-based Fenwick & West, says he’s worried about what Congress may come up with to protect people’s privacy.

“Consumers would be best served by the government giving industry self-regulation a chance before passing the wrong legislation,” Blum said.

“You have to divide some of the responsibility for privacy between businesses and individuals,” said Betty Steele, a certified information systems security professional and attorney at Baker Donelson in Nashville, Tennessee. “Individuals have to accept more responsibility about how their information will be used and then protect that information.”

Steele would like to see federal laws set a base level for protection of personal information, with the states being able to impose stricter standards if desired.

Difficult Task

“Limiting the amount and kind of information companies can collect from us sounds good,” said Jeff Kagan, an Atlanta, Georgia-based telecom and wireless industry analyst. “Over the last couple of decades we have lost our privacy. In our dreams we have privacy, but when we open our eyes we realize we have none.

“How can we turn back the hands of time and undo what has been done over the last few decades?” Kagan asked. “I think this is much harder than they think.”

Reforming USF

Boucher did not reveal details of his USF reform plan. Kagan agrees reform is necessary, but he has little faith Congress will get it right.

“The USF is in serious need of reform,” Kagan said. “We have known this for many years. The current plan no longer works. However, any plans to change it take too long to be effective.

“By the time we pass a new plan, the technology has moved past that point and the plan would be irrelevant again. This is the big problem,” Kagan said. “Over the last 100 years it was easy. However, during the last decade or two, that way no longer works.

“Over the last 10 years the telecommunications industry has changed dramatically,” Kagan added. “A decade ago if you wanted to make a phone call, you’d have to use a telephone and a telephone network. Today there are many ways of making calls, including cell phones and VoIP providers such as cable television companies. Today there is no more standalone long-distance industry.”

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.