WASHINGTON - A top Treasury Department official and the House Banking Committee's ranking Democrat warned in separate speeches Wednesday that more consumer protections are needed for Internet banking and other high-tech services to flourish.
"There may be no part of our economy that is more suited to delivery over the Internet than financial services," Gary Gensler, the Treasury's under secretary for domestic finance, said in a luncheon speech to the Exchequer Club. "But consumer confidence is critical to achieving the full promise of electronic commerce."
More privacy safeguards, Mr. Gensler said, are the foremost necessity.
The White House soon will propose legislation that would extend the protections in the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 so that customers could block the sharing of information among holding company affiliates in addition to data disclosures to unaffiliated third parties. He also called for pro-consumer changes to pending digital signature legislation and for increased private-sector efforts to strengthen computer security in light of hacker attacks last week on corporate Web sites.
Echoing Mr. Gensler, Rep. John J. LaFalce said Wednesday that Congress must focus more on consumer issues in 2000 after modernizing laws governing the financial services industry last year. The New York Democrat said he is increasingly concerned about the development of a "two-tiered structure" for financial services between rich and poor. Compounding the problem, he said, is the "digital divide" between those who have computers and those who do not.
"If we do not remove it, the potential fissure in our financial services structure between rich and poor will become even more pronounced," Rep. LaFalce said in an address to Women in Housing and Finance. "The current lack of access to computers may create barriers to Internet banking and prevent many consumers from benefiting from more favorable products offered on-line."
Both Mr. Gensler and Rep. LaFalce attempted to walk a fine line between consumerism and excessive regulation.
On privacy, Mr. Gensler argued that Gramm-Leach-Bliley preserves a "zone of privacy" for individuals - including who they are and how they spend their money - while including exceptions to keep securitizations and other market activities smoothly functioning. He vowed the Clinton administration would preserve that "balanced approach" in its forthcoming proposals.
"The administration feels quite strongly that we should keep [confidentiality] as one of the bedrocks of the relationship between consumers and the financial industry," Mr. Gensler said. At the same time, he said, many Americans "want to share more about themselves, possibly to get more services."
Both said digital signature legislation, which would establish the validity of electronic signatures and contracts, could help customers, provided that mortgage and other consumer disclosures are preserved in the electronic world. Mr. Gensler recommended changes to ensure that lenders obtain informed consent to send electronic notices and that these notices function effectively.