WASHINGTON - Privacy legislation that would further limit the uses of financial and medical information and preempt state and local laws could be introduced in the House as early as next month.
"I intend to begin drafting legislative language addressing the information privacy concerns of consumers during the August district work period," Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., said Friday after concluding his Energy and Commerce subcommittee's series of hearings on the issue. He said he will circulate the proposal with industry, consumer groups, and other interested parties for comment when it is drafted.
A spokesman for Committee Chairman W.J. "Billy" Tauzin, R-La., said a draft bill would be shown to interested parties at a "privacy summit," such as the one proposed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for this fall, before the legislation is introduced.
Rep. Stearns did not say whether he would tackle the various privacy issues piecemeal or in a comprehensive bill. However, he emphasized that he would treat online and traditional transactions the same, and he said that he is aware of industry calls for nationwide standards and restrictions on class actions.
"I was pleased that IBM, GM, P&G, Amazon.com, and Lands' End all agreed that potential privacy legislation should not differentiate between online and offline business practices," Rep. Stearns said in a press statement. "I also heard the clarion call of the witnesses asking that any federal legislation include strong preemption language and preclude private rights of action."
Tom Mills, a privacy attorney with the Washington firm of Winston & Strawn, said it would be impossible to draft a bill that would addresses everyone's concerns. "I don't think a one-size-fits-all approach will work."
Also, writing a bill that holds online and traditional commerce to the same standards would not be feasible, because the two types of transactions are fundamentally different, he said.
However, the private sector's requests for federal preemption language and restrictions on class actions probably could be accommodated, Mr. Mills said.
Rep. Stearns, chairman of the commerce, trade, and consumer protection subcommittee, convened the information privacy hearings on March 1. Witnesses from consumer advocacy groups, marketing firms, academia, and corporate giants such as AT&T Corp. and Microsoft Corp. testified about how companies collect and use customer information and the effectiveness of current consumer protection laws.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., has said he planned to introduce comprehensive Internet privacy legislation before Congress adjourns for the year.