House Pushes P2P Bill

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The House Energy & Commerce Committee passed two bills last week aimed at protecting personal information online, including one that would establish new guidelines for some peer-to-peer file sharing.

While cable companies, their fellow network operators and others raised concerns with the Federal Communications Commission and lawmakers about the management of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing programs, the Informed P2P User Act (HR 1319), which was reported out of committee Wednesday, would put its own restrictions on the technology.

The bill would require that users of file-sharing programs receive “conspicuous notice” and are required to opt in before the P2P program is installed. It also would mandate those who market or distribute the programs make it “reasonably simple” to block or remove the software. But the measure says it does not mean to discourage the legitimate use of file-sharing technology.

The bill as passed narrowed the definition of peer-to-peer services subject to the restrictions to those where sharing of personal data — such as financial or health records — was implicated. It specifically exempts e-mail, instant messaging, real-time audio and video and real-time voice applications, its co-sponsor, Rep. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.), said at the markup hearing.

That wasn’t narrow enough for Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash). He said he was concerned that the bill could still unintentionally “sweep up” applications “with legitimate value to consumers.”

That concern was shared by a fellow Democrat, Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania. Committee chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who introduced a managers’ amendment with those exemptions, said the goal was “to avoid sweeping in legitimate technologies unrelated to inadvertent file-sharing.” He’d work with the two lawmakers to make sure the language made that clearer, if need be, he said.

The language about clear notification and requiring a user’s prior consent reminded at least one legislator of the push for similar notice for online targeted advertising.

“I understand my colleague Ms. Bono Mack’s concern for preserving the individual’s right to consent to sharing information stored on computer disks with others via peer-to-peer file sharing programs,” said the panel’s former chairman, Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.). “I would dare say it would have some bearing on this committee’s consideration of the subject of behavioral advertising.”

Also passed out of committee was HR 2221, which sets federal standards for protecting personal information — including affording consumers more access to and control of such data — and which requires consumers be notified of data breaches.

The bills now head to the House floor.