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Technology conference looking at online privacy

Members of Congress suggest a centralized federal privacy czar

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DENVER — Microsoft has one. So do American Express, AT&T, Citigroup and Prudential Insurance. Now some in Congress say the federal government should, too.

With consumers increasingly worried about how companies use their personal information to track them on the Internet, many large corporations are hiring privacy officers with broad authority to protect such data.

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., thinks the government also needs a privacy czar who would coordinate information protection among federal agencies. Many of those agencies have chief information officers who are responsible for privacy issues — but that's in addition to a number of other duties.

"Right now, there's a danger of too many cooks spoiling the soup," said Davis' spokesman, David Marin. "A centralized leader will be able to make information security one of the top priorities of the federal government."

Privacy is a key topic on the agenda of industry and government leaders attending the sixth annual technology policy summit sponsored by the nonprofit Progress and Freedom Foundation, which researches the effect of the digital revolution on public policy.

Other topics to be discussed at the summit, which runs through Tuesday in Aspen, include telecommunications deregulation, the future of the Federal Communications Commission and e-commerce.

Privacy problems have occurred at several dot-com companies, including Toysmart.com and DoubleClick, and the FBI has been criticized for its e-mail surveillance system.

DoubleClick, an Internet advertising broker, was criticized for a plan to market a record of Web pages that consumers have visited. It was one of a group of companies whose self-regulating proposal was accepted by the Federal Trade Commission in July.

Online retailer Toysmart, which had promised customers it would never divulge personal information, wanted to sell its customer list after filing for bankruptcy protection in June. In a settlement with federal regulators, the company agreed to sell the list only to buyers who abide by Toysmart's privacy policy.

"It's been a bumpy year for the digital revolution," said Progress and Freedom Foundation President Jeffrey Eisenach.

"I think you have a little bit of a growing-up process that's going on with companies just learning to act in a way that doesn't get them in trouble with consumers."

The issue also has played a role in politics, with Democrats approving a platform plank supporting greater online privacy protection through an "Electronic Bill of Rights" sought by Vice President Al Gore. The Republican platform supports allowing high-tech companies to police themselves.

Davis' bill would create a federal Office of Information Policy to be headed by a chief information officer appointed by the president. The officer would work with the director of Davis' proposed Office of Information Security and Technical Protection. That office would coordinate federal agencies' information-technology efforts.

Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., hopes Congress will move cautiously when considering any privacy policy, especially one that would affect business. But he said industry self-regulation is unlikely to work.

The House Government Reform Committee has approved Hutchinson's bill to create a Privacy Protection Commission to study electronic privacy issues and recommend congressional action. He said it would be the first such study in 25 years.