Yesterday, the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing, and Trade held a hearing entitled , “Understanding Consumer Attitudes About Privacy.”  The hearing featured a single panel with a mix of industry representatives and consumer privacy advocates, including representatives from Intuit, Microsoft, the Digital Advertising Alliance, Evidon, and the World Privacy Forum. 

A primary focus of the hearing was the efficacy of industry self-regulatory initiatives and other efforts to provide consumers with information and choices about managing their online privacy.  In particular, members expressed interest in the “About Ads” self-regulatory principles for online behavioral advertising and other company-specific efforts to provide consumers with notice and choice. 

Members also expressed interest in the panelists’ positions on the need for federal privacy legislation.  Rep. Stearns asked several of the panelists whether they are supportive of privacy legislation that he introduced earlier this year –the Consumer Privacy Protection Act of 2011 (H.R. 1528).  And Reps. John Dingell (D-MI) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) both asked about whether a Do Not Track mandate would be advisable.  As a general matter, the industry panelists took the position that technological developments, rather than a government mandate, should drive the availability of Do Not Track.  However, several of industry representatives, including the Intuit and Microsoft panelists, voiced support for federal legislation that would establish flexible baseline privacy principles and would incorporate safe harbors for compliance with self-regulatory programs.  Pam Dixon, Executive Director of the World Privacy Forum, indicated that her organization also supports federal privacy legislation, but she emphasized that it also believes that industry self-regulatory initiatives should continue to play an important role in addressing consumer privacy concerns.  Ms. Dixon added that consumers should play a larger role in the development of self-regulatory principles.

Another theme at the hearing was the relationship between consumer privacy, on the one hand, and innovation and economic growth, on the other hand.  Rep. Brett Guthrie (R-KY), for example, asked the panelists about the impact of privacy regulation — both government and self-regulation — on the availability of free content for consumers on the Internet.  Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) was focused on the economic costs and benefits of participation in self-regulatory initiatives to small businesses.