Personal privacy is threatened today as never before, and only the national government has the scope and clout to combat it effectively. It's a threat that criss-crosses state and even national boundaries, humming along electronic signals within vast computerized networks.
Washington has been slow to respond, and the Clinton administration's policy of self-regulation for the on-line industry is inadequate.
In recent days, though, hopeful signs have surfaced that Congress and the Federal Trade Commission have become impatient and want constructive action.
The threats to individual privacy evolve from several sources. There's a growing hunger among so-called "information brokers," companies and individuals that collect personal information about consumers and sell it to third parties, which then use it in a variety of ways. In addition, the mergers of massive financial institutions -- banks and brokers and insurance companies -- are creating huge institutions that have in their possession all kinds of personal information about Americans.
Then there is the rapidly advancing technology that is cobbled into great networks like the nationwide corporate data banks and the Internet.
So it is reassuring that the Federal Trade Commission has just taken its first-ever action to enforce Internet privacy. It reached a settlement with Geocities, a popular site on the World Wide Web, which the FTC said had misled its 2 million subscribers by sharing information collected from them without obtaining their permission, as pledged. Geocities admitted no wrongdoing, but altered its practices.
Another hopeful sign is a bipartisan bill approved by the House Banking Committee toughening privacy protections. Co-sponsored by Reps. John J. LaFalce of the Town of Tonawanda, the ranking Democrat on the panel, and James Leach of Iowa, its Republican chairman, the bill would criminalize fraudulent collections of personal information from financial institutions and broaden rights to sue offenders.
Unfortunately, the bill fails to bar financial institutions from using certain data for marketing purposes without the written consent of consumers -- a good safeguard in the exposed realm of personal privacy. Perhaps this can be added later in the House debate, expected this fall, or in the Senate, where Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., supports a companion bill.
LaFalce puts the privacy threat in apt perspective, warning that "the ability of information brokers to assemble elaborate electronic dossiers on every American consumer and household . . . is a disturbing example of how technology is rapidly challenging our traditional notion of personal privacy."
Legal restraints must catch up. In doing that, Congress must respect cherished American values of free speech and the free flow of information. Yet this menace to privacy is too potent and expansive to ignore. It is too pressing to rely on the self-regulation that the Clinton administration favors. Geocities exposes the flaws of self-regulation.
Congress must step in. Individuals have a fundamental right to personal privacy and, because of that, they must be able to better control the sharing of data about themselves that they provided.