Lawmakers peruse privacy tools

In its fifth hearing on privacy, the House Subcommittee on Commerce Trade and Consumer Protection heard from companies including Microsoft, which is building privacy features into its upcoming browser, Internet Explorer 6.0.

Microsoft on June 25, will make publicly available a beta version of IE6 at www.microsoft.com/windows/ie.

The company is pushing privacy as a major lynchpin of WindowsXP, due out October 25.

IE6 privacy enhancements are designed to let consumers set browser settings to alert them to the privacy policies used at visited corporate sites.

Michael Wallent, IE product unit manager at the Thursday hearing, said privacy could begin to register more with the average user -- especially given the fact that privacy is so key to Windows XP, which Microsoft will promote with as much or more marketing dollars as it pumped into its Windows 95 campaign.

Representative Diana DeGette stressed the importance of public awareness around the privacy issue.

"Consumers must understand the vagaries of privacy policies and technologies that are now being deployed," she said.

Other companies presenting before the subcommittee in its hearing on privacy and industry best practices included Webwasher, SafeWeb, and Reciprocal.

Lawmakers at the hearing acknowledged the momentum around the emerging privacy-related technology area but asked vendors for feedback on whether there is a pressing need for privacy legislation.

"We are leaving the era of Big Brother and entering the era of Big Browser. No longer are people so worried about what the government can do, but what Corporate America can do," quipped Rep. Edward Markey.

Stephen Hsu, CEO of SafeWeb, said privacy legislation called federal privacy legislation "inevitable" since industry is sharpening its ability to store transmit and use data.

"We are just at the beginning," Hsu said, who like other vendors at the hearing advised lawmakers not to rush their efforts to regulate privacy.

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