On July 14, 2011, the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee convened a joint hearing of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade (chaired by Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-CA)), and the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology (chaired by Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR)), to launch a comprehensive review of Internet privacy.  The series of hearings began with testimony from officials representing three agencies with jurisdiction over consumer privacy issues: FTC Commissioner Edith Ramirez, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, and Department of Commerce Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information Lawrence Strickling.

The hearing included discussion of a wide range of topics, with significant attention focused on matters related to each agency’s jurisdiction over privacy issues.  Specifically, the discussion addressed (1) possible jurisdictional overlap among the agencies, (2) whether the Federal Trade Commission has sufficient enforcement authority to effectively regulate privacy, and (3) whether the agencies together are able to provide comprehensive privacy protection for consumers.

The discussion also highlighted the need to strike an appropriate balance in matters of privacy governance such that privacy interests are protected without slowing the innovation and powerful economic growth promised by online commerce.  Members of the subcommittees repeatedly asked about the harm that may be caused by certain online activities (e.g., targeted behavioral advertising), and whether assertions about consumer concerns in this regard are supported by evidence.

Witnesses also fielded questions regarding:

  • Children’s privacy, specifically whether it may be time to revisit how best to provide protection given changes in technology and new applications;
  • Data and network security, particularly in light of reports of hacking by News Corp. in the UK;
  • HIPAA and health privacy issues;
  • Do Not Track proposals;
  • Providing notice and choice to consumers more effectively;
  • Transparency and consumer education; and
  • Whether legislation is appropriate to address privacy concerns, or if self regulation can provide effective safeguards for consumers.