WASHINGTON -- Calling privacy a "basic American value," Vice President Al Gore pressed today for new federal laws to prevent companies from collecting personal information from children who use Internet Web sites, chat rooms and e-mail.
Among its first steps toward crafting an "Electronic Bill of Rights," the Clinton administration also wants to suspend plans to assign every American a health-care ID number and proposed a new role for the Office of Management and Budget in writing privacy rules.
Gore said citizens' rights to decide whether to allow companies to collect personal information, dictate what type of data is collected and review it for accuracy "do not have sufficient protections by a long shot."
Gore, who first described such a bill of rights in May, pressed for new laws against identity fraud and for new protections of consumer credit reports.
"Privacy is a basic American value, in the information age and in every age," Gore said. "It must be protected. We need an electronic bill of rights for this electronic age."
Gore said the announcements "will make technology consistent with America's oldest values."
Privacy has become a politically popular issue, amid growing concern among Americans about high-tech intrusions into their personal lives.
"We're beginning to see the flesh put on the bones," said Deirdre Mulligan, a privacy specialist at the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington. "These are very specific proposals that respond to issues that advocates and the public have raised."
Critics have complained about a 1996 law that would assign everyone a computer number to track health care from birth to death, noting that it allows insurance companies, doctors, drug stores and others to release medical records for broadly defined "health care operations."
Gore today called it "one of the worst things to happen to privacy since Alan Funt," who created the "Candid Camera" television series.
"It appears the White House is at least beginning to take privacy seriously," said Barry Steinhardt, president of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group. He called it "a very important step that significantly improves the outlook for medical privacy."
Children on the Internet would find new protections under Gore's plans.
Federal regulators said this summer that many companies collect personal information from children online, sometimes asking for their names and e-mail addresses -- even questions about their personal finances -- using animated characters or as an incentive to join a contest or play a game.
"You don't do business with an 11-year-old without parental consent," said Robert Pitofsky, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, which already has asked Congress for new laws limiting how Web sites collect information from kids.
"The information that is requested on these Web sites appears to be so innocent, very harmless," said Sen. Richard Bryan, D-Nev., who introduced a bill that would require companies to obtain a parent's permission before they collect information from children under 12. "But they do invade a family's privacy and raise safety concerns."
The White House is not calling for relaxed restrictions on powerful data-scrambling technology, called encryption, which helps keep e-mail and other messages confidential but also can be used by criminals.
"On the main privacy issues, the ones that confront the country today, the administration is still reluctant to make the hard decisions," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, which has lobbied for broader use of encryption.
The administration also is pledging its support for the online industry to find ways to better protect the privacy of adults on the Web, such as recent efforts by the Online Privacy Alliance, a newly formed group of 50 companies and trade groups that include Microsoft, America Online and IBM.
Gore recently warned computer industry executives that if self-regulation does not work, "we will be obliged to take action ourselves." The FTC told Congress it should pass tough new privacy laws for adults if the industry's own efforts do not improve by year's end.
Advocates generally praised plans for the new federal privacy office, but noted that OMB -- the new office's parent agency -- has itself been criticized for failing to enforce existing federal privacy laws.
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