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3/31/2006
05:45 PM
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Privacy Protection: Progress, Of Sorts

Reasonable minds can argue over the specifics in these bills, and they should. But whatever passes, and I do hope that happens soon, at least those bills form some sort of basis for nailing thieves and for holding accountable the companies that are the repositories of our most sensitive data. It also speaks to a beginning of a public policy of sorts.

There's been some recent movement regarding two consumer data-protection bills in Congress. Progress is really slow, however, and I hope I'm wrong on this, but I believe it would be very optimistic to think they're going to be approved and signed by President Bush before the current session of Congress ends in early October, just in time for campaign season.Speaking of Washington, there's also a new think tank in residence that I worry may be overly skewed toward the tech industry, but more about that in a moment.

The first legislative effort concerns consumers' telephone records. There are bills in both the Senate and the House that would make it illegal to sell phone records without consent and would impose hefty fines on telecom vendors that fail to safeguard their customers' data. The bill in the House boosts penalties to as much as $30,000 per incident and up to $3 million for continuing violations by telephone companies.

The Senate's Commerce Committee has now approved the measure. But before the bill can be approved by the full Senate, language differences in it and its House counterpart must be worked out. Hence my skepticism about it passing before October--but hey, I've been wrong before. And this is a relatively uncontroversial law-in-the-making; I'm betting most politicians see only an upside in going back to their constituents with this particular issue under their belts.

For its part, the fledgling data security bill--the one that mandates financial institutions notify customers if account information is compromised--has made it out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill, H.R. 4127, passed the subcommittee unanimously and will next go to the House Judiciary Committee. Some observers are betting it's going to run into some trouble there, wrangling over language and such. One interesting provision is that if banks use encryption and the information is stolen, account holders need not be notified. If it's encrypted, the thinking goes, nobody's going to be able to read the data, so why worry the customer?

Reasonable minds can argue over the specifics in these bills, and they should. But whatever passes, and I do hope that happens soon, at least those bills form some sort of basis for nailing thieves and for holding accountable the companies that are the repositories of our most sensitive data. It also speaks to a beginning of a public policy of sorts.

And speaking of policy, I admit I was a bit concerned when I read about the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), which is being billed as a nonpartisan think tank. It's got impressive credentials, for sure. The ITIF will be chaired by two former House members, Republican Jennifer Dunn and Democrat Calvin Dooley. Day-to-day operations will be headed by its president, Robert Atkinson, who most recently was director of the Technology and New Economy Project at the Progressive Policy Institute, another think tank.

So what's not to like, you may ask. Well, for one thing, the ITIF is being bankrolled by the Information Technology Industry Council, which is a lobbying group of 40 of the most powerful tech firms in the computer industry, including Cisco, Dell, eBay, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Oracle SAP, and Sun.

Second, consider this information from the ITIF's own Web site, which says its mission is "articulating and advancing a pro-productivity, pro-innovation and pro-technology public policy agenda internationally, in Washington and the states." Given who's paying the bills, I've got to wonder whose agenda is really being promoted here. I suppose some education is better than none, but I hope our industry won't be contributing to the confusion in some quarters about all things technology-related. And as a very wise person once said, sometimes a shoebox is better than a PC if all you want to do is store baseball cards.

It's all in how you spin it--and, yes, I freely admit I'm doing that here. The difference is that you know this is an opinion column (I hope); it's not purporting to be a news story with the mission of providing unbiased, or at least balanced, information.

On a much lighter note, Washington has been deemed the most telecommuter-friendly city in America. That's got to be a good thing, don't you think, with less hot air all 'round?

Please leave your comments below.Reasonable minds can argue over the specifics in these bills, and they should. But whatever passes, and I do hope that happens soon, at least those bills form some sort of basis for nailing thieves and for holding accountable the companies that are the repositories of our most sensitive data. It also speaks to a beginning of a public policy of sorts.

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