Guess What: Some Big Companies Actually Want More Privacy Regulation

Obama microformat

The Obama administration made official its call for a comprehensive privacy law today, and there are signals that industry support for such a move might be broader than expected. To start with, a privacy official from Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), a key industry player, voiced the company’s support for new federal legislation, saying that the current patchwork of industry-by-industry privacy rules is too cumbersome. The government’s proposal, which was laid out to a Senate committee today by Commerce Department official Larry Strickling, will provide a “baseline” of privacy protections. Strickling didn’t define exactly what those are, but said that the administration is ready to work with Congress and hammer out the details.

While federal legislation should set baseline rules for privacy protection, Microsoft Deputy General Counsel Erich Andersen said at the hearing, but should be joined by industry self-regulation that would fine-tune the controls. There are currently more than 300 state and federal laws relating to privacy, said Andersen, adding that the current approach “creates confusion among consumers and can result in gaps in the law for emerging sectors or business models.”

Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith wrote about the company’s support for federal privacy legislation on the company’s policy blog today, writing that “[c]onsumer trust is vital to the growth of a vibrant Internet, and respect for privacy is a critical component to earning and maintaining that trust.”

And Microsoft wasn’t the only company in the somewhat unusual position of asking for more regulation. “The key to our success and to ensuring balance among these interests is earning the customers trust,” said Barbara Lawler, Chief Privacy Officer for Intuit, which makes TurboTax and other software.

The government’s proposal will make the FTC the primary enforcement agency for privacy law. The administration is introducing its ideas for privacy rules with the same “privacy bill of rights” phrasing used in a Commerce Department report released last year. Just the fact that the Commerce Department is on board with the proposal may suggest broad industry support, since Commerce released its privacy suggestions around the same time that an FTC report on privacy was published, and Commerce was widely considered the more industry-friendly of the two reports.

The administration’s proposal–which is really only a broad-stroke statement at this point–joins a plethora of privacy bills already submitted or proposed, including a Senate bill recently proposed by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-AZ), as well as a House bill proposed by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA).

Correction Appended 3/21: The original version of this article attributed an incorrect quote to Barbara Lawler of Intuit. In fact, the quote was spoken by Chris Calabrese of the American Civil Liberites Union, who also spoke in support of the proposal. Both quotes are from the same same link to the Senate committee’s website.

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