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UPDATE:Privacy Amendments Added to Treasury-Postal Spending Bill

The U.S. House of Representatives recently added two amendments to a fiscal year 2001 appropriations bill that address fears that federal Web sites are threatening privacy by tracking a visitor’s progress through the site and collecting identifiable information.

One amendment, introduced by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-NJ, would prevent federal Web sites from using Internet software commonly known as cookies to collect information about Web site users.

Frelinghuysen’s amendment would require government agencies to stop the use of cookie technology until there is a uniform government policy that protects the public’s privacy on government Web sites. Frelinghuysen said he decided to introduce the amendment because constituents have complained that federal Web sites were collecting information about them without their knowledge.

Another amendment, introduced by Rep. Jay Inslee, D-WA, requires government agencies to show Congress and the public how they collect personal information from visitors to their Internet sites. If the bill is passed, the federal agencies will have to review their compliance with existing Web polices and submit descriptions of how they handle Internet privacy issues. The agencies will have 90 days from the day of passage to report their practices to Congress.

Inslee said that if the federal government is collecting information “about our personal habits, we have a right to know about it so that we can stop any invasion of privacy.”

The bill, H.R. 4871, was approved July 20 by a vote of 216 to 202. Both amendments were added to the appropriations bill by voice vote the same day. The amendments cover every government agency that is funded under or receives funding from treasury and postal agencies, including: the U.S. Postal Service; Treasury Department; White House; Internal Revenue Service; the Customs Service Web site; and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

These amendments were brought up despite the Clinton administration having issued rules in June about the use of cookies. Those rules direct all federal agencies to review their compliance with existing Web privacy policies and to submit descriptions of how they handle privacy issues.

The Senate has not taken up the bill yet but is expected to do so in September, before Congress adjourns Oct. 6.

The USPS doesn’t expect the ruling to have any effect on the agency.

A postal service spokeswoman said, “We already are basically prohibited from collecting lists of addresses and selling them for commercial purposes.”

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