What New Congressional Leaders Could Mean for Online Privacy

DeMint Resignation Leaves a Gap in Senate Commerce Committee

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The online ad industry lost an ally on a key House subcommittee when Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California lost reelection in November and learned this week that pro-business Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina is resigning his post. But opponents of privacy legislation -- the Interactive Advertising Bureau and other ad trade organizations among them -- have gained a bit more prominence in the appointment of Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee as vice chair of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn at the Heritage Foundation
Rep. Marsha Blackburn at the Heritage Foundation

A staunch supporter of industry self-regulation, Ms. Blackburn last year used a column for the conservative political site RedState to describe the Federal Trade Commission's approach to privacy regulation as "an unintended Internet kill switch."

Ms. Blackburn is currently vice chair of the Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade subcommittee, so the full committee leadership position in the new Congress will be a step up. But advocates viewed the importance of her new role differently. "It's a leadership position for her on the full committee," said Mike Zaneis, general counsel at the IAB, which once hosted a privacy roundtable featuring Ms. Blackburn. "I suspect she's going to remain extremely vocal on privacy issues."

A consumer privacy advocate suggested her appointment to vice chair won't necessarily translate to increased power. It's "kind of an honorific thing," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy.

Elsewhere in the House of Representatives, Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska was named last week to lead the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee, which oversees consumer protection, privacy and data security issues. The Nebraska Republican expects to address online privacy in the coming Congress, a spokesperson for Mr. Terry said.

Mr. Terry's district also encompasses Omaha, which is "home to more than three dozen telemarketing centers," according to the National Journal Almanac. He has been a proponent of legislation supporting telemarketing rights and last year sponsored a bill allowing companies to make robo-calls to mobile phones. He pulled that bill following a public outcry.

Both Ms. Blackburn and Mr. Terry co-sponsored the much-maligned Stop Online Piracy Act, and both later withdrew support.

Meanwhile, Mr. DeMint's surprising announcement Thursday that he will resign from the Senate to become president of conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation leaves a gap in the Senate Commerce Committee, where he had been expected to be named ranking member, the highest position available for members of the body's minority party. Whether his absence will actually have an impact on moving privacy legislation out of committee remains to be seen.

His potential replacement may not be as adversarial towards Committee Chairman Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, suggested Mr. Zaneis, who said Sen. DeMint "would have probably been at complete loggerheads with Sen. Rockefeller." Sen. Rockefeller sponsored the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011. None of the privacy-protection bills proposed in the last several years or so have made it out of committee.

The name of Senator John Thune of South Dakota has been floated as the next Commerce Committee ranking member. "I suspect [Sen. Thune] will have a more amicable relationship with Chairman Rockefeller personally, but I don't think much will change substantively," said Mr. Zaneis. The IAB's political action committee gave $1,000 to Mr. Thune in March.

Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, another leading member of the Commerce committee and co-sponsor of the Commercial Privacy Bill of Rights Act, would also leave the Senate if appointed to a position within President Barack Obama's administration, as is anticipated.

Several privacy advocates said it was too early to gauge the impact of the new leadership. "We still have a split in the House and Senate so it's unclear what legislation will make it through," said Ed Mierzwinski, federal consumer program director and senior fellow for the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups.

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