Privacy Bill Nears Introduction in House

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WASHINGTON -- The House Democrat heading up the push for legislation that would set new online privacy safeguards that could dramatically reshape Internet marketing said he plans to introduce the bill shortly, with several Republicans likely signed on as co-sponsors.

Rick Boucher, who chairs the House Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, said he has reached a general agreement about the substantive portions of the bill, and that he is "very close" to finishing a discussion draft of the legislation to consider at a hearing.

"Our goal in doing this is to enhance the confidence that Internet users have that their experience on the Web is secure," Boucher said on Wednesday here at the State of the Net conference, an annual event hosted by the Congressional Internet Caucus, which the Virginia lawmaker co-chairs.

Boucher said the bill will contain a mixture of opt-in and opt-out provisions that would determine the level of consent online marketers must obtain from consumers when collecting data to use for targeted ads.

Members of Boucher's subcommittee and the full Energy and Commerce Committee have been meeting with a broad array of stakeholders in the privacy debate, and last year saw several hearings on the subject as they move toward a draft bill.

Boucher acknowledged the essential friction that industry groups are quick to point out -- that is, advertising is the primary revenue channel for Web content and applications, and more precisely targeted ads command premium rates. Consumers then enjoy a richer menu of free content, without being bombarded with ads for items that carry no interest for them. (A favorite example: With the benefit of some basic demographic information, advertisers would know not to serve ads for diapers when a middle-aged man with grown kids visits a Web site.)

"We do not want to disrupt targeted advertising," Boucher said. Rather, he said he aims for the bill to codify the best practices for data collection and consumer privacy currently in use in the marketing industry, while setting clear parameters to bring bad actors into line.

Data privacy is only one item on Boucher's ambitious agenda for his subcommittee. Last week the panel reported a bill requiring an inventory of the nation's wireless spectrum, a step that would pave the way for opening up new portions of the airwaves for wireless data capacity to handle the proliferation of Internet traffic on mobile networks. The bill is now pending before the full committee, and Boucher said he hopes to see it clear the full House in short order.

"The crunch will come soon," he said. "We're going to need more spectrum within just a few years."

A similar bill is pending in the Senate.

Boucher said he is very close to introducing a bill to overhaul the Universal Service Fund (USF), the federal subsidy paid to telecom operators to deliver phone service to rural households.

Boucher is working with Nebraska Republican Lee Terry to craft the legislation, which would divert some of the money currently directed to phone service toward broadband. Within five years of the bill's enactment, Boucher said that any recipient of USF money would be required to provide broadband service throughout its coverage area.

"This fund is fully going to be used in order to accommodate broadband," he said.

The bill would also reform the USF's system of incoming and outgoing payments, and Boucher said he had reached a solid agreement among small, midsize and large telecom providers, who have clashed on previous efforts to revamp USF.

Later this year, Boucher said he hoped to draft a bill that would establish a set of consumer protections for wireless users that would preempt existing state laws, though he offered no specifics on what that legislation would entail.

In addition to his legislative agenda, Boucher is also looking ahead to a series of oversight proceedings. Next week, his subcommittee is set to consider the proposed merger of Comcast and NBC Universal, one of several congressional proceedings scheduled to examine that deal.

Later in February, he said he plans to hold an oversight proceeding to consider the guidelines for dispersing the grants and loans for broadband projects allocated in last year's economic stimulus bill.

Then, likely in March, Boucher said he intends to hold a hearing examining the national broadband strategy the Federal Communications Commission is due to deliver to Congress that month.

"It's pretty ambitious," Boucher said. "But I think this agenda can be accomplished."

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.