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Rob Preston
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Down To Business: Can The Worthless Regs

Some are way too broad. Others have outlived their usefulness. We should be as rigorous in evaluating and retiring IT regulations as we are (or should be) with our IT systems.

We've all seen too much money thrown at grandiose IT programs. Too much consensus-building and scope creep and not enough tough decision-making. Too many pet projects that should never have been let out of the kennel. Too much software that never made it off the shelf. Too many legacy systems that were never retired.

Unfortunately, this kind of overkill and underkill extends to IT policy-making as well. The people who make the rules that govern information technology and practices fall into the same traps as the people who buy and manage IT systems.

Many IT rules, especially the laws and regulations passed on the state and federal levels, are crammed with a hodgepodge of good intentions. When they prove to be overly broad or imprecise, they live on and on anyway, due to inertia or the thinking that a flawed rule beats none at all.

The Can-Spam Act, in effect since January 2004, is just such a paper tiger. By almost every account, spammers are doing at least as much spamming today as ever, despite the act's myriad prohibitions, penalties, and provisions. In the first quarter, spam accounted for about 80% of all the E-mail traffic on the Internet, according to the international Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group, whose members include AOL, Bell Canada, EarthLink, France Telecom, Microsoft, Verizon, and Yahoo. That compares with the same 80% in the previous quarter. Microsoft and AOL combined block about 5 billion pieces of spam each day.

Granted, thanks to ISP and enterprise filters, most of that spam never reaches the intended recipients, so users aren't as concerned about the stuff as they were in January 2004. So even if Can-Spam isn't canning spam at all, no harm, right?

Wrong. Worthless regulations still cost money and are a distraction. They instill a false sense of security and accomplishment. As the Cato Institute's Jim Harper writes in a recent blog: "Should Congress or the FTC ramp up enforcement? Increase penalties to bring spammers to heel? No. They should abandon the enterprise entirely and confess their incompetence to regulate the Internet and technology." Doing more of what's not working now won't make things better.

On the data protection and privacy front, several bills are wending their way through Congress, sporting names like the Federal Agency Data Breach Protection Act, Financial Data Protection Act, and Data Accountability Trust Act. They all sound so reasonable, but before you get behind one or more of these federal attempts to tell companies how to collect, manage, and safeguard sensitive data, consider whether such laws will really make a difference or just layer on more CYA bureaucracy and legal exposure.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., has promised to introduce a "privacy bill of rights" that would give consumers the right to sue when privacy rules have been violated (don't they have that right already?), freeze credit when their identities have been stolen (sorry, too late), and challenge the government to exercise best practices in dealing with their personal information (sorry, too vague). Should such a bill become law, chief privacy officers will batten down every hatch while outside lawyers will exploit every gray area. Great for the lawyers, but not much good for everyone else.

This isn't to argue that every IT-related rule and regulation is a nonstarter. Especially at the corporate and industry level, whether it's a privacy policy or dictum on data retention, if rules are clearly stated with an explicit objective, they can promote best practices and protect customers. Just as important, however, if they don't do the intended job or prove to be just a nuisance, they must be revised or scrapped.

Likewise, let's euthanize the sweeping federal IT regs that have outlived whatever usefulness they may have once had and scrutinize those on the docket. That is, do the kind of policy due diligence we must apply regularly to our own IT practices and investments.


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