New Commerce Chair Bodes Well For Privacy, Net Neutrality

Digital rights advocates are cheering the news that Henry Waxman (D. Calif.) will replace John Dingell (D. Mich.) as chair of the House Energy and Commerce committee.

Advocates think Waxman's appointment could result in new protections for net neutrality and online privacy. For one thing, Waxman has a reputation as a leading consumer advocate, unafraid to take on big business. Also, at least according to today's Wall Street Journal, Washington observers are predicting that Waxman will delegate many telecom matters to Rep. Ed Markey (D. Mass.), who has long been a staunch supporter of both net neutrality and online privacy rights.

Net neutrality might be on the backburner for now, given the FCC's recent decision to sanction Comcast for slowing peer-to-peer traffic. But if an appeals court reverses that ruling, new legislation will almost certainly be introduced.

The last time lawmakers seriously considered net neutrality legislation was in 2006, when former Sen. Ted Stevens (R. Alaska) helped kill the proposed law. But much has changed since then. Two years ago, advocates weren't able to point to examples of discrimination by ISPs, which would have justified new regulations. Now that everyone knows ISPs like Comcast systematically discriminated against particular applications, it's easier to make the case for regulation.

Industry observers also expect that lawmakers will continue to focus on Web privacy and whether some types of online ad techniques are too intrusive. Markey helped lead the inquiries this year into NebuAd, which was purchasing data about users' Web activity from ISPs and serving people targeted ads based on sites visited and searches conducted. Even without any new legislation, the scrutiny helped drive the company to retreat from its business model.

Ari Schwartz, vice president and chief operating officer of the Center for Democracy and Technology, tells MediaPost that Waxman has long supported consumer privacy rights.

Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, calls Waxman's appointment "terrific news for consumers." Chester enthuses, "We now will have the dynamic duo for consumer protection and online marketing -- Henry Waxman and Ed Markey."

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