Rick Boucher

By Angelique Carson, CIPP

Despite industry resistance to federal privacy legislation, its passage would benefit even those who resist it most.

That’s according to former Virginia State Rep. Rick Boucher, who recently joined the law firm Sidley Austin as a partner. Boucher says that legislative action on privacy is inevitable due to mounting public concern and the resulting corporate interest. When privacy rights are guaranteed online, the public is more trusting of the Internet, leading to a higher volume of electronic commerce, Boucher told the Daily Dashboard in an interview last week. However, when and how it will pass is anyone’s guess in a legislative environment dominated by budgets, he said.

Boucher served as a member of the House of Representatives for 28 years and as a member of its  Energy and Commerce Committee for 25 years. He chaired the House Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications and the Internet. At Sidley Austin, Boucher is heading the firm’s new government strategies practice group, which will turn a significant focus on privacy over the next two years, a topic that he says “will be addressed on Capitol Hill and for which there is a large expectation for legislative action and a constituency that would benefit from legislation being adopted.”

His interest in privacy isn’t newly founded. Eight years ago, Boucher and Rep. Cliff Stearns (R-FL) introduced a measure to provide privacy rights to Internet users. At that time, though, privacy was further down on Washington’s legislative priority list, and the measure failed to gain widespread support. But Boucher says it did generate some conversation on the subject of privacy, which has now matured into one of this congress’s leading subjects.

The 2010 Boucher-Stearns privacy bill, which failed to pass, was an amended version of that original measure. Stearns has since introduced similar but modified bipartisan legislation with Rep. Jim Matheson (D-UT). Boucher said he couldn’t speculate on that bill’s—or any other’s—chances of passing because budget issues are dominating the debate in both houses of congress, pushing privacy and other worthy causes down the priority list. But, he’s optimistic.

“Given the bipartisan nature of support that exists for it, and also given the fact that we have bipartisan bills in the house and the senate from leaders on the subject,” Boucher said, the Stearns bill might pass.

“And I think it’s noteworthy that the president has also lent his public support to adopting privacy legislation for a broad-range of purposes, including for Internet users,” he added.  

Boucher and Stearns’ bill received criticism from advocacy groups—which called for stronger consumer privacy measures—and industry, which wanted fewer restrictions on the collection and use of data.

The push and pull between advocacy and industry is a problem that Boucher says can be resolved. Though industry remains largely opposed to legislative measures, Boucher says he’s been meeting with companies—some whose support could be influential in getting a privacy bill passed—that have yet to publicly establish their opinion on user privacy rights.

“I think those companies share my view that the passage of such a bill would have a positive effect on the overall level of electronic commerce because of the assurance that would be provided to Internet users that their personal information is secure in the online environment,” he said.

In general, companies already employing sound data protection standards would appreciate that “all of the companies taking part in the businesses they are involved in are playing by a common set of rules and are offering the same level of privacy assurances,” he added.

When it comes to do-not-track legislation, Boucher says he prefers a different approach, one in which there is a clear set of rules on how companies manage customer data and includes full data collection disclosure, choice on data uses and opt-out provisions for sensitive data, while allowing for a thriving targeted advertising industry.

“I really don’t want to see that model, which is at the foundation of free availability of content, undermined, and I’m concerned ‘Do Not Track’ in and of itself might do that,” he said.


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