Beltway Battle Could Have Implications for Do-Not-Track

A battle over leadership of a key U.S. House committee that’s been brewing since the November elections should be decided this week, and is bound to have implications for online advertisers. At stake is the chairmanship of the important House Energy and Commerce committee, home to a privacy bill introduced earlier this year, and to lawmakers with a keen interest in online behavioral advertising and related online privacy issues including do-not-track.

Among those who have thrown their hats in the ring is Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, a co-chairman of the House Privacy Caucus who has expressed an interest in online privacy issues. Recently, Barton and another co-chair of the caucus sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg inquiring about an alleged privacy breach; the letter asked the company to respond to a series of privacy-related questions.

“In the next Congress, the Energy and Commerce Committee and our subcommittees are going to put Internet privacy policies in the crosshairs,” stated Barton in a House Energy and Commerce Republicans press release after Facebook submitted its responses to the inquiry. “I want the Internet economy to prosper, but it can’t unless the people’s right to privacy means more than a right to hear excuses after the damage is done,” he said.

According to a spokesperson representing the committee’s Republicans, a vote on the chairmanship is expected to take place today. The committee leadership changeover comes as a result of the Republican win of the House in November.

According to reports, Rep. Michele Bachmann, a tea party Republican from Minnesota, has endorsed Barton for the chairmanship.

Close watchers of the committee leadership race suggest that Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan has a better chance of scoring the prized position than Barton. Another candidate, Cliff Stearns of Florida, is the only one directly attached to any form of privacy legislation. In May, Stearns co-sponsored a highly-anticipated draft privacy bill along with Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia. That draft, not officially introduced as a bill, was poorly received by privacy advocates and industry interests. Stearns was endorsed for the chairmanship by The Republican Business Council.

Rep. John Shimkus of Illinois is also in the running for the chairmanship, according to reports. No matter what the outcome, it appears that the Interactive Advertising Bureau has hedged its bets, if its Political Action Committee donations are any indication. The committees of Upton, Stearns, and Shimkus have been recipients of IAB PAC donations since 2009, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

While much legislator interest in online advertising and data privacy, including a pending privacy bill sponsored by Rep. Bobby Rush, has originated in the commerce committee, it is unclear how much attention the committee will pay to privacy issues during the next congressional session. Barton, for example, has indicated that healthcare, and oversight of the Environmental Protection Agency and Federal Communications Commission will be prominent issues to tackle if he is chosen to lead.

The Rush bill could still have momentum. Last week, the House Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection Subcommittee held a hearing to discuss the feasibility of a do-not-track mechanism for the Web.

“Privacy groups believe that there will be strong bipartisan support in the new Congress for legislation protecting consumers,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a group that advocates for consumer privacy in digital media. “It will be one of the few bipartisan issues that pass scrutiny. As pressure builds to protect consumer data online, including health, financial, teen-related and other personal data, a coalition of unusual allies will emerge,” he predicted.

When asked whether he has a preference for who wins the chairmanship, Chester answered, “No. We are going to work with the House leadership, regardless of who is named today.”

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