Burns and Wyden Introduce Online Privacy Bill

(April 18, 1999) Sen. Conrad Burns and Sen. Ron Wyden introduced the Online Privacy Protection Act on Thursday, April 15. The bill would limit the way web sites and online services collect and disseminate personal information about individuals without their consent. It would require web sites and online services to post notices about their information collection and use policies, and allow individuals to prevent disclosure of certain personal information.

Related Pages

Online Privacy Protection Act (S 809).
Tech Law Journal's Summary of Online Privacy Bills in the 106th Congress.
Sen. Burns' statement and summary.

The Online Privacy Protection Act of 1999, S 809, is sponsored by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR). Both are active on high-tech issues, and are members of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the bill. Sen. Burns is also Chairman of the Communications Subcommittee. The two jointly announced the introduction of the bill at a press conference in Washington DC on April 15.

"What we are doing is giving consumers an absolute trump card, if they don't want their information collected or sold," Sen. Wyden said at the press conference. "Every commercial web site visited has to contain information about what type of information is collected, how it is used. And, we really think that the ultimate in consumer empowerment is to give the consumer the opportunity to choose ..."

Sen. Burns

"Consumers have the right to know who is collecting information about them and how that information is being used," Burns said in a press release. "Many people are terrified that using the Internet will put their credit card numbers or even Social Security numbers into the hands of people who do not mean well, and that's not entirely unjustified. This bill is a good first step to securing Internet users' personal information."

"What Senator Burns and I are doing in our legislation, is sending a very strong message, that you can not reach the full potential of the electronic marketplace, without protecting the privacy rights of the consumer," said Sen. Wyden. "If you don't have full disclosure, and an opportunity for the consumer to opt out of being monitored, you may have a new dark side to the concept of 'cookie monster'."

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Sen. Wyden

The bill has been described as protecting consumers' privacy. However, the word "consumer" does not appear in the bill, and the word "privacy" is hardly used. More precisely, the bill regulates the activities of "Web sites and online services" in how they "collect, use, and disclose" "personal information" about "individuals". The definition of "personal information" includes name, address, email address, social security number, and telephone number.

The bill requires web sites and online services to provide notice of what personal information is collected, how it is used, and how it is shared with others. Also, individuals must be given the opportunity to opt out of having their personal information disclosed to others, for purposes unrelated to those contained in the notice.

The bill also requires web sites and online services to provide individuals both a description and copies of their personal information. Finally, the bill requires web sites and online services to protect the confidentiality of personal information.

The bill gives rule making and enforcement authority to the Federal Trade Commission under its jurisdiction over unfair and deceptive trade practices. The bill would preempt state laws, but allow state Attorney Generals to bring suits on behalf of state residents. The bill does not create any private causes of action.

The Information Technology Association of America (ITAA) immediately questioned the need for the bill. "Acceptance of Internet commerce is occurring at an unprecedented speed. The Internet as a consumer medium is only four years old, so it is natural that different consumers may require varying degrees of comfort level using it," said ITAA President Harris Miller in a press release. "The reluctance of some consumers to engage in Internet commerce after such a short period should not be seen as a need for regulation. Free market responses, technological innovation and cultural change, rather than special government rules is the best means to let individuals decide to shop online at their own pace."

Sen. Wyden added in the question and answer session that, "my sense is that for the foreseeable future, the voluntary efforts that are underway, are going to only cover the best actors, number one. They aren't going to have any meaningful enforcement in a number of cases. And, that we think that it is appropriate to address is legislatively."

"This is not the end of the debate," said Sen. Wyden. "This is really the beginning of the discussion."