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Gates calls for new privacy law

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates asked the U.S. Congress to pass a comprehensive privacy law this year, allowing consumers to control how their personal information is used.

Gates repeated past Microsoft calls for a wide-ranging privacy law during a speech at advocacy group the Center for Democracy and Technology’s (CDT) annual gala dinner Wednesday. A comprehensive privacy bill should allow consumers to control their personal data, should provide transparency about what their data is used for, and should notify them when their data has been compromised, Gates said.

Gates said he believes the U.S. can achieve a balance between privacy and protecting the country against terrorists and other criminals. But the balance will not be an easy one to create, Gates said.

While many U.S. residents would say they want as much privacy “as possible,” law enforcement needs to be able to track criminals, Gates said. “These privacy issues are not as easy as you might think,” he told the crowd.

Gates hinted that some privacy protections can go so far that they become annoying to consumers. He talked about the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), passed by Congress in 1996, which puts strict controls on the release of information. HIPAA too often asks patients to sign documents allowing the release of their medical records, he said.

HIPAA is evidence “we don’t always get it right the first time,” Gates said. “All I know is I keep signing those forms.”

Another balance Congress needs to strike is between emerging technologies and privacy, said Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Leahy also called on Congress to pass a privacy law.

But a privacy law cannot restrict new technologies, Leahy said. “I don’t want to stop the technologies, I want to protect our privacy,” he during the dinner. “I think we can do both.”

The U.S. government spying on its residents is of particular concern, Leahy said. “I don’t want to put a brake on technology, but on what my government can learn about me without letting me know,” he said.

Leahy and Gates both said they have great hopes for the future of the Internet. “The Internet is a great tool,” Leahy said. “Let’s keep it a free tool.”

The world is just at the beginning of the potential of the Internet coupled with personal computers, Gates added. Coming advances in storage, in bandwidth and in user-created content will make the Internet and even greater tool for democratic ideals, he said.

“We’re just at the very beginning,” he said.

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