Even as marketers challenged results of a new Federal Trade Commission study of Internet privacy and the agency's call for an online privacy law, key senators seemed to be moving ahead with a broader agenda.
"It seems to me that there is an opportunity for bipartisanship working here, if we were to pass fairly specific disclosure legislation," Sen. John F. Kerry (D., Mass.) told fellow members of the Senate Commerce Committee at a hearing on the FTC report.
Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) decided to hold off on action concerning the report pending a hearing on online profiling set for next week.
FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said last week that it made little sense to treat data differently depending on where they were collected.
Senators taking positions on both sides of the FTC's request said whatever happens legislatively, on- and offline data collection should be treated similarly.
"We have to be careful we don't impose on the Internet regulation that is different from the offline world," said Sen. John Ashcroft (R., Mo.)
Among the bills seeking to extend privacy protection beyond the Web is one proposed last week by Sen. Ernest Hollings (D., S.C.), Sen. John D. Rockefeller (D., W. Va.) and eight others.
How far that legislation would go this year isn't clear.
Rep. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R., La.) chairman of a House Commerce Committee subcommittee that would have to review it, told Advertising Age he is skeptical of the FTC's request.
"Less than a year ago with a lot less progress, Mr. Pitofsky said there was no need for legislation, and today with more progress, he now is accepting the advice of bureaucrats," Rep. Tauzin said.
While requiring offline privacy policies would appear to be a major step, the Direct Marketing Association already requires its members to give notice and then let consumers opt out of sale of their information to other parties.
The FTC's call for legislation drew sometimes angry reaction from ad and Internet groups, which called the data and FTC's conclusions misleading. The FTC report also drew less than rave reviews from the Clinton administration.
Approved 3-2, the third FTC report to track Web privacy in three years told Congress that Web marketers' attempts at self-regulation haven't fully worked and that now is the time for the government to impose minimum standards.
COMPLYING WITH FTC
The new survey showed 100% of the most popular Web sites -- and 88% of a random sample of other consumer sites -- had at least one privacy disclosure. However, of sites collecting personally identifying information, 42% of the most popular sites and 20% of the random sample met all four elements of the FTC's privacy principles -- notice, choice, access and security (AA, May 22).
The FTC asked for authority to set a basic level of privacy but didn't propose specific language.
Mr. Pitofsky, who in the past opposed legislation, said he still believed in self-regulation.
"This is meant to complement self-regulation," he said.