By: D. Ian Hopper, AP Technology Writer
(AP) Federal Trade Commission chairman Timothy J. Muris is to announce Thursday that his agency will not seek stronger consumer privacy laws.
His position is a reversal of Clinton-era policy that said consumer privacy laws were needed to protect personal data on the Internet.
The decision carries more weight after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, many companies have been sharing their consumer data with law enforcement agencies and each other in an attempt to look for suspicious coincidences.
Muris will instead increase the staff working on privacy issues by 50%, according to sources familiar with the chairman’s plan. The extra people will enable the commission to police more Web sites and bring lawsuits against violators, according to the plan.
He also plans to target mass e-mail, also known as spam, sources said. The FTC will create a national list of companies that are bothering consumers by sending excessive amounts of unwanted commercial e-mail.
Several privacy groups expressed their dismay at the FTC’s retreat. In a report to Congress last year, the commission called for laws that make sure consumers know how their data is being collected over the Internet and allow them to choose how it is used.
“It’s unfortunate that Muris should take this backwards step rather than a more progressive step to safeguard consumers,” said Sarah Andrews of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
FTC spokeswoman Cathy McFarlane declined to comment on the planned speech, to be given to a privacy conference in Cleveland Thursday. Muris succeeded Robert Pitofsky as head of the FTC in May.
Muris’s decision to drop support for new privacy legislation was first reported by the Los Angeles Times in its Tuesday editions.
Larry Ponemon, head of the Richardson, Texas-based Privacy Council, said the decision will be another blow to privacy advocates already smarting over the Justice Department’s calls for fewer restrictions on surveillance.
“If the speech was delivered on Sept. 10, it would have been viewed as a negative event in the privacy community,” Ponemon said. “Now that it’s delivered after the 11th, it’s a crisis. It looks like we’ve lost federal government support.”
Ponemon, a privacy consultant, said he has been contacted by many companies — such as banks and a national supermarket chain — asking how they should tell consumers that they gave huge swaths of consumer data to law enforcement.
In many cases, Ponemon said, the companies sent the information on their own initiative in order to assist the terrorism investigation. Some firms, such as airlines and car rental agencies, are breaking their privacy policies by sharing data to analyze suspicious activity.
During the presidential campaign, then-Governor Bush said he supported Americans’ rights to know how their personal information is collected and how it is used. But since the election, Bush has not had the opportunity to act on any Internet privacy legislation.
The White House did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
Muris met with many advocacy groups in making his decision, and made no secret of his reluctance for new laws, according to Ari Schwartz of the Center for Democracy and Technology.
“He made it very clear that he’s looking for cases under existing authority to take action,” Schwartz said.
Federal Trade Commission: http://www.ftc.gov
Center for Democracy and Technology: http://www.cdt.org
Privacy Council: http://www.privacycouncil.com