RealTime IT News

Spyware Bill Heads Back to Senate

After failing to get a hearing in the 106th Congress, Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) reintroduced his Spyware Control and Privacy Protection Act to the Senate Tuesday.

The bill would protect Internet surfers from companies that imbed "cookies" in downloadable software programs, whether through an established software company like Microsoft or amateur "freeware" and "shareware" programs disseminated to the public.

Cookies are software programs that collect the personal information of a user, including name, home address and home telephone number. That information and any other that might interest the tracking company, for example Web surfing habits, is then uploaded to the host company, which is then able to sell the information gathered.

Violations would carry a $2,500 penalty, up to a maximum of $500,000 for offending companies, plus court costs.

Edwards said that today's technology is a double-edged sword, helping on one hand but hurting on the other.

"Technology makes our lives easier in so many ways, but that convenience can compromise our privacy," Edwards said. "The same technology that puts information at our fingertips also makes our shopping and Web surfing habits, even our medical and financial records, available to the highest bidder. This legislation is a reasonable way to help Americans regain some of their lost privacy. We must find ways to keep confidential personal records confidential."

If the bill passes, software designers will need to include an easy-to-understand notice explaining the information being gathered and for what purposes it will be used. That information must also be available for the user to access.

But the bill also gives law enforcement officials a back door to information collected by the software makers. This brings up a thorny nest of issues for privacy advocates who say the information should not be open for government perusal, even if such a government agency would need a court order in order to do so.

Edwards' Spyware bill is one of several making its way into the 107th Congress after failing to make any headway last year. It was read twice and referred to the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, but languished there under chairman John McCain (R-AZ), who is trying to pass an Internet filtering bill of his own.

One such bill is the Financial Information Privacy Protection Act, which would prevent Web site operators like Amazon.com from selling or distributing information about a user's spending habits.

The Consumer Privacy Protection Act is similar to Edwards' bill, and is in fact co-sponsored by him. The bill would require Internet service providers, online service providers or Web site operators to disclose when and what personally identifiable information (PIM) information is being taken, and to request the user's permission first.

A similar bill, dubbed the Consumer Internet Privacy Protection Act, was also making its way through the House of Representatives last year and is expected to show up again in 2001.