Senate turf war brewing over web privacy

The leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee sent a clear message to the Judiciary Committee this week: Online privacy is our territory.

Commerce chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) took the unusual step of writing to the Senate Judiciary Committee expressing their opinion that the Commerce Committee is the natural home of any online privacy legislation.

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At issue is the announcement from Judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) last month regarding the formation of a new Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and Law with Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) serving as chairman and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) as ranking member.

According to the subcommittee's website, the panel will focus on providing oversight of privacy issues related to social networks, online advertising and emerging technologies, among other areas.

That rankled Commerce committee members, who have already begun work crafting online privacy legislation under Rockefeller's leadership. The incident demonstrates the growing importance of online privacy as a consumer and political issue that touches the lives of the majority of Americans.

"We are concerned about the description of the Subcommittee on the Judiciary Committee website and are puzzled insofar as the jurisdiction described appears to be beyond the scope of the jurisdiction of the Judiciary Committee under the Senate Rule XXV," wrote Sens. Rockefeller and Hutchison.

"Legislation related to such matters lie squarely within the jurisdiction of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee...As you undoubtedly know, the Senate Commerce Committee  for many years has focused on attention on the need to protect consumers' privacy interests."

Sources told Hillicon that Commerce staffers were blindsided by the announcement of the new subcommittee without first discussing how the new subpanel would coordinate with Commerce on privacy issues.

But a Judiciary aide said Commerce was taking a narrow view of privacy as solely a consumer issue and said there is clearly a role for the Judiciary Committee in privacy-related issues.

The aide noted Judiciary considered privacy legislation as recently as the data privacy bill from Sens. Leahy and Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in the last Congress and was adamant that Judiciary coordinates with Commerce frequently on privacy and other related issues and will continue to do so in the future.

Sen. Franken's office declined to comment on Friday, deferring to Sen. Leahy. Leahy's office said he was traveling on Friday and therefore unable to review the letter and issue a comment.