House May Vote on Phone Data Privacy Bill Soon

By Jeremy Pelofsky

Legislation that would make it illegal to obtain and sell consumers' telephone records could come to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday, said Rep. Joe Barton, one of the measure's authors.

Momentum to vote on the bill has been building since Hewlett-Packard Co. admitted that its investigators obtained telephone records of board members, employees and journalists without their permission as the company tried to find out who was leaking sensitive information.

"There's a good chance it might pop up today. We may actually get to vote on it. It may be midnight tonight," Barton said at a hearing on pretexting, the practice of someone impersonating an individual to get the information without permission.

Barton, a Texas Republican and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said "the bill is alive and healthy."

The committee in March unanimously approved the measure, which also mandates tougher Federal Communications Commission rules for phone companies that maintain such records as well as higher fines for phone companies that fail to adhere to the standards.

The bill would also require telephone carriers to get a customer's permission before sharing some specific call information with others for activities like marketing.

Democrats brought a "Gone with the Wind" movie poster to the hearing and painted the bill number for the legislation, H.R. 4943, on the poster because the measure had not been seen since May, when it was pulled from the schedule for House floor votes, without explanation.

"We really do need to pass legislation, and in particular we need to pass H.R. 4943," said Rep. Diana DeGette, a Colorado Democrat.

The full House has already passed a narrower bill to make pretexting illegal and impose criminal penalties. The Senate is also considering similar legislation, but it was unclear if the lawmakers there would vote before leaving to campaign for the November elections.

"The committees are still working and finalizing language which might not be finished this week," said Carolyn Weyforth, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who controls the Senate schedule.

Copyright 2006 Reuters Limited.

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Jeremy Pelofsky, Reuters
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