Internet, tech firms not too worried about privacy legislation

Lobbyists for Internet and technology companies don't expect Congress to pass legislation protecting online privacy any time soon.

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"I don't anticipate [comprehensive privacy legislation] getting done this year," said Michael Beckerman, CEO of the Internet Association, a new lobbying group that represents industry giants including Facebook, Google and Amazon.

"It's not a front-burner issue right now," another technology lobbyist explained.

Despite repeated calls, including from President Obama, for online privacy legislation, Congress has been unable to unite around any bill that would set baseline requirements for how companies must handle their customers' personal information.

Many technology companies compile troves of data on their customers, allowing for more customized services and more precisely targeted ads. The rise of smartphones has enabled companies to track users' locations and provide them with more useful information.

Technology companies, many of which offer their services for free, make billions of dollars every year from the collection of personal data.

But many privacy advocates and policy makers are concerned that without any ground rules, consumers are at risk of losing control over their most sensitive personal information.

The European Union has adopted tough privacy protection laws and is currently considering a proposal that would impose even stricter requirements on Internet companies, such as allowing their users to access and delete the data collected about them.

The United States, meanwhile, has few privacy protection laws on the books.

"American innovators lead the world when it comes to Internet services and that would be next to impossible under the European privacy regime," said Steve DelBianco, executive director of industry group NetChoice.

Last year, the White House announced an "online privacy Bill of Rights" and urged Congress to enact the principles into law.

The Obama administration argues that broad privacy laws would increase trust in online services, boosting e-commerce.

In recent years, the Federal Trade Commission has taken on the role of chief privacy regulator. But aside from issues involving children, the agency must rely on its authority to police "unfair or deceptive" business practices. So if a company violates a promise it made in its own privacy policy, the FTC can take action. Otherwise, the agency has little power.

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced comprehensive privacy legislation in 2011, but the bill found little traction in Congress.

Rep. Lee Terry (R-Neb.), the new chairman of a key subcommittee with jurisdiction over online privacy issues, told reporters in January that he is open to privacy legislation, but he said his panel will first have to form a study group and hold a series of hearings to study the issue more thoroughly.

The technology lobbyist who said the issue is not on the front burner argued that privacy legislation has stalled because it is a complicated issue and that lawmakers are afraid of stifling future innovation.

The lobbyist emphasized that some online companies favor privacy legislation because it would provide clear rules to follow and could stave off tougher regulation.

"I don't think in the first six months we'll see much movement on [comprehensive privacy legislation]," admitted Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a public advocacy group.

Brookman said he is optimistic that Congress will eventually enact baseline privacy rules, and he argued that narrower protections are possible in the short term.

He explained that the Senate Judiciary Committee is likely to take up a bill from Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) that would require companies to get a customer's consent before collecting or sharing mobile location data.

Meanwhile, aides to Reps. Joe Barton (R-Texas) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said they plan to renew their push for the Do Not Track Kids Act, which would strengthen online privacy rules for children.

And an aide to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) said the senator plans to re-introduce legislation that would allow Internet users to opt out of online tracking.