Microsoft-led Privacy Group Backs off Legislation

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A Microsoft-led group set up three years ago has backed away from its original goal of pushing for comprehensive U.S. privacy legislation.

Originally, the Consumer Privacy Legislative Forum was set up to bring a diverse array of consumer companies, technology vendors and even advocacy groups together and help drive privacy legislation. But now the group has been renamed the Business Forum for Consumer Privacy and is instead being billed as "an organization focused on fostering innovation in consumer privacy governance," according to the group's new mission statement.

The Forum has released a white paper at the International Association of Privacy Professionals conference held in Washington this week. "What the organization is doing is developing the framework that would make new governance possible," said Martin Abrams, an adviser to the Forum who is executive director with the Centre for Information Policy Leadership at Hunton & Williams, an international law firm.

Two of the Forum's original members, Symantec and the Center for Democracy and Technology, say they have dropped out. Eastman Kodak has also dropped out, according to Abrams. He was not authorized to say who the current members are, but the group appears to include Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, eBay and Google.

U.S. consumers are covered by a patchwork of state and federal laws that are confusing for companies, and which often force consumers to work hard to protect their own data. Many of the Forum's members would like to change things, but it appears that coming up with legislative proposals was too much.

"While many in industry were for workable privacy legislation, there were too many issues to simply push to the drafting stages," Forum member eBay said in a statement Thursday. "Instead, the group focused on identifying the major issues and differences in privacy approaches with a goal of resolving them. eBay continues to believe that workable federal privacy legislation will benefit both consumers and businesses."

Microsoft did not make a representative available for an interview on the issue, but in a statement the company said it supported both well-crafted federal privacy legislation and efforts to promote self-regulation.

One privacy watcher is critical of the group's shift toward self-regulation.

"Given the positive publicity that the group generated a couple of years ago … this really does feel like a step back." said Michael Geist, a professor with the University of Ottawa. "It's an odd thing to see happening when self-regulation is hardly the flavor of the month."

While the Forum may not be taking the lead in any proposed legislation, it probably won't harm legislative efforts either, said Ari Schwartz, chief operating officer with the Center for Democracy and Technology. "Some of the people that started this project were hoping that business could help lead that process," he said. "I think the leadership is going to have to come from Congress."

Schwartz expects new federal privacy legislation to be proposed this year. Several such bills have been proposed unsuccessfully in the past.

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