McCain’s Privacy Paper Gets His Own Record Wrong

Our guest blogger is Peter Swire, a Senior Fellow at the Center of American Progress Action Fund and the C. William O’Neill Professor of Law at the Ohio State University. He served as Chief Counselor for Privacy under President Clinton.

mac1.jpgThere have been lots of criticisms of Senator McCain for not being savvy about the Internet, such as for his statement last month that he has “never felt the particular need to e-mail.”

It turns out, though, that Senator McCain and his campaign aren’t even savvy about something they absolutely, truly should know — his own record about the Internet and privacy. After all, Senator McCain has been the ranking Republican on the Senate Commerce Committee for most of the past ten years, with jurisdiction over many Internet issues.

On August 14, a full 16 months after he formally announced his campaign for President, Senator McCain finally released his first policy paper on the Internet, privacy, and security.

The paper has the bland and unobjectionable title of “Ensuring the Personal Security and Privacy of Americans in the Digital Age.” The content is similarly bland. We learn that it is important to protect kids, and that the “Internet and other, advanced technologies can deliver many benefits to society, but sometimes can also pose new threats.” Important stuff, well worth the wait.

The striking thing to me, however, is how the description of Senator McCain’s own record is filled with factual inaccuracies matched with embarrassing puffery.

Let’s go to the videotape:

(1) In describing the bipartisan Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the paper says: “COPPA became law in 2000.” Not quite. The title of the law is “The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998.”

(2) The paper says: “2000 – McCain authored the Consumer Internet Privacy Enhancement Act requiring Internet websites to post privacy policies regarding the collection and use of consumers’ information. The bill and subsequent hearings on online privacy spurred the top commercial websites to post consumer privacy policies.”

There are two problems here. First, the Federal Trade Commission survey in early 2000 found that 100% of top commercial sites and 88% of random commercial sites had already posted privacy policies. The big improvement happened earlier, when the FTC and the Clinton Administration (of which I was a part) pushed the number from 12% in 1998 up to that 88% number. By the time 2000 came, McCain was jumping on a bandwagon that had already reached its destination.

The second problem with today’s paper is that McCain’s 2000 bill was a government requirement of notice to consumers. He has flip-flopped since then, and now his “self-regulation” approach does not support federal statutes that provide basic privacy protections for consumers. His statement today apparently would not support his own legislation in 2000. That is, he supports fewer privacy protections than he did during his “maverick” phase in 2000.

(3) The paper says: “2003 – McCain led in creating the FTC’s ‘Do-Not-Call’ telemarketing registry to allow consumers to opt out of receiving telemarketing calls. And, when the law was challenged in court, McCain led the effort to ensure that it was upheld.”

This claim is hilarious for those of us who work on these issues. FTC Chairman Tim Muris announced in October, 2001 that the FTC was going to do the Do Not Call list. Yet somehow McCain magically caused the Do Not Call list in 2003. And, given the independent agency status of the FTC, it is a stretch to say that “McCain led the effort to ensure that it was upheld.”

(4) The paper says: “2003 – McCain co-authored the CAN-SPAM Act to regulate the sending of unsolicited commercial e-mail (“spam”) to consumers and enable them to opt out of receiving such email.”

According to the Library of Congress, three Republicans and four Democratic senators introduced the CAN-SPAM bill in 2003. John McCain was not one of them. McCain became involved during the process, but only after at least 19 other senators had sponsored the bill.

If these kinds of mistakes were made in the middle of a speech, the McCain campaign could try to shrug them off, the way they do with the candidate’s confusion of Shia and Sunni or his statement that there is a border between Iraq and Pakistan.

That won’t work here. The new Internet statement, part of a broader technology policy release, is the McCain campaign’s big attempt to show that it “gets” technology after all.

Instead, the technology troubles continue. We have already had 16 months of no policy in the technology realm and an admitted lack of knowledge by the candidate himself. Now the campaign can’t even get the basics straight on something they absolutely should know — the candidate’s own record.

You can check all of these facts on what McCain has called “a Google.” Perhaps even sadder, the campaign press release trumpets that “John McCain has lead the effort to address challenges such as protecting our children online, our privacy and our sensitive personal information.” Perhaps they could discover another cutting-edge technology: spell-check?

UPDATE: Shaun Dakin, CEO The National Political Do Not Contact Registry, points out the irony that the McCain “campaign ignores the privacy of his OWN voters by continuing to robo call them at home even though they signed up for the Federal Do Not Call registry.” He adds:

The National Political Do Not Contact Registry has thousands of complaints from our members that they received unwanted robo calls from the McCain campaign during the primaries and continuing throughout the summer.