Gore's Privacy Plans Signal No Clear Agenda

While Vice President Al Gore clearly intends to push privacy further into the political arena, people from all sides of the debate are struggling to find where their agendas fall on the White House scorecard.

Citing privacy as “a basic American value that must be protected,” Gore renewed his call for an “electronic bill of rights” in an announcement delivered July 31 at the White House. According to Gore, the four principles an electronic bill of rights must embody are:

* The right for a person to choose whether his or her personal information is disclosed.

* The right to know how, when and how much of that information is being used.

* The right for a person to see his or her information.

* The right to correct information if it's inaccurate.

Although Gore called for legislation requiring parental permission before the collection of information from children under 13, he did not call for the appointment of a privacy czar as he was expected to do.

“DMers who felt that the White House has gone too far on consumer privacy should be breathing a little easier,” said Jason Catlett, president and co-founder of Junkbusters Corp., a two-year-old company that maintains an opt-in/opt-out preference service accessible on the Internet at www.junkbusters.com.

Catlett said privacy advocates he spoke to after the talk were pleased with Gore's focus on the issue “but saw little actual advancement of their agenda that day. The announcement didn't propose any concrete steps to stop unfair information practices except those concerning children.”

Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that the White House is “still ducking the hard problems.”

Pat Faley, vice president of consumer affairs at the Direct Marketing Association, said Gore's third principle requiring that people have access to information collected about them is still a sticking point with the DMA and that she was surprised it was included in Gore's announcement.

“We have been working to explain our view that the amount of access should be proportional to the amount of harm that could be created by the use of the information,” Faley said. “We thought we had worked through that process and that [the White House] understood what we were saying. But now I think we need to go back and talk to them a little bit more.”

Another point of concern, Faley said, was Gore's call for a dialogue with state and local governments about laws governing the use of public records.

“I'm not sure that the White House understands the extent to which the press, businesses and government rely on public records to be effective,” she said, adding that the White House should be wary of possible economic ramifications of any laws restricting the use of public records.

On the plus side for industry self-regulation advocates, Gore cited the Online Privacy Alliance, a group of 50 or so leading companies doing business on the Internet, as an example of the industry's “good faith effort to respond” to President Clinton's call a year ago for industry self-regulation.

“We will continue to monitor the progress of the online industry to make sure these commitments are kept,” Gore said, referring to an initiative the alliance unveiled last month which calls for electronic seals of approval to enforce information-use policies. “The test of this private sector-led effort is how much participation occurs and how meaningful is the enforcement.”

Meanwhile, H. Robert Wientzen, president and CEO of the DMA, last week sent letters to members urging them to step up their privacy efforts and educate consumers and policy makers about the DMA's “Privacy Promise” guidelines. Under the guidelines, providing notice, offering opt-out of name rental and exchange, honoring opt-out requests, and employing the DMA's Mail Preference Service and Telephone Preference Service will be a condition of membership in the DMA as of July 1, 1999.

“The print and broadcast media have placed direct and interactive marketing under what is arguably the most intense scrutiny we have ever experienced,” Wientzen said in his letter.

In September, the DMA will launch a series of 14 seminars nationwide to help companies comply with guidelines.

Gore also called on Congress for legislation restricting the “free-flow” of medical records and announced that the White House is delaying a proposal to issue unique health identifiers “until we are sure that Americans' basic privacy is protected.” He also called on Congress to make identity theft a federal crime.

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