In my own words Those who live in glass houses …
By By Dick Armey
April 29, 2001
Americans put a high value on their privacy. And for good reason. I don't want strangers poking around in my business any more than they want me poking around in theirs. But new forms of communication like the Internet present an entirely new challenge for those of us concerned about privacy.
Many unexpected pitfalls await those who rush into this complicated issue. In the fast-paced world of the Internet, Congress must avoid silver-bullet solutions to privacy problems. At best, answers that come too easily are likely to fall short of their mark and quickly become obsolete.
At worst, they'll divert our attention from the much larger privacy problem in the government's own backyard.
Last year, the Federal Trade Commission thought that it had developed some good ideas for regulating commercial Web sites to protect privacy. The commission set out its own privacy principles last May in a report entitled Fair Information Practices in the Electronic Marketplace.''
The problem was that the good folks at the FTC were so busy figuring out how to regulate the commercial sector that it forgot to regulate itself and they fell into the hypocrisy trap.
When I asked the General Accounting Office to apply the FTC's privacy criteria to the government itself, they found that not only did the FTC fail to meet the very standards it had asked Congress to impose on everyone else, so did 97 percent of all federal web sites surveyed.
I think we can draw a lesson from this. The government should review its own practices before it becomes too preachy about privacy.
It takes more than good intentions to make good law. And some well-intentioned privacy initiatives may actually result in less protection than existing law. President Bill Clinton, for example, used his last hours in office to cobble together a rule designed to protect the privacy of medical information.
But buried within the expansive text filled with new regulatory requirements for health care providers is a passage giving the Department of Health and Human Services the right to collect all personal medical records from a given health provider without a warrant or prior notice.
It's hard to dispute the goal of assuring patients that they can share personal information with their doctor or insurance company without risk.
But it's unclear how requiring patients to sign a bunch of disclosure waiver forms will help protect privacy, improve health care or alleviate patient anxiety. What is certain is funneling all that information to the department is a step in the wrong direction.
If consumers think that their information will not be adequately protected, they simply won't shop online. We should remember that these online services have a strong market incentive to quickly address privacy concerns if they want to stay in business.
A new law or regulation would be the slowest and least effective way to address the same concerns. The market is better suited to adapting and quickly changing to meet new circumstances or to address the changing demands of consumers.
And that's important because the way we understand the Internet and Web sites today is changing. Web sites are simply the way that most of us interact on the Internet today that may not be true tomorrow.
Already, a substantial amount of Internet data, such as stock trades, travels by cell phone or other mobile devices. Imagine trying to read an overblown legal privacy notice on your tiny cell phone screen before opening an E-trade account. Imposing notice rules on Web sites may be as relevant next year as requiring airbags on horse buggies.
These are just some examples of how thorny and difficult privacy issues can be. I don't pretend to have all the answers. But I do know that right now Congress is like an inexperienced and amateur mechanic trying to tinker with the supercharged, high-tech engine of our economy. We need to be careful not to let our good intentions get in the way of common sense.
That doesn't mean that we can't or shouldn't do something about privacy.
Far from it. It means that we should start with what we know best and have the greatest ability to affect. We've already seen a few examples of how the federal government needs serious attention when it comes to privacy.
And there are plenty of things we can do to improve the way the federal government uses personal information, both in the bureaucracy and in Congress. We should clean our own house before dictating solutions for others.
Those who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. And right now, the federal government's online house is made of pretty thin glass.
Rep. Dick Armey, R-Texas., is majority leader of the U.S. House of Representatives.