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TV-Privacy Bill Moves to California Senate Committee

A bill designed to protect the privacy of TV viewers is advancing in the California legislature, despite opposition from cable interests and Microsoft Corp.

Under current state law, it is illegal for video storeowners to divulge information about rental and viewership habits. That bill originated in the 1980s after tabloid journalists obtained and published information about movies rented by public figures. But the latest bill, introduced by state Sen. Debra Bowen (D-Redondo Beach) would extend that protection to cable subscribers.

Concern that interactive-TV service providers, such as Wink Communications and Tivo Inc., could provide identifiable user information to third parties prompted Bowen to propose the bill.

She first introduced the measure last year, but quickly withdrew it. At that time, interactive-service executives said the bill was unnecessary because they maintained that any consumer information sold would not identify individuals. Bowen withdrew it before the first committee vote.

Reintroduced in February, the bill would prevent "video providers" from sharing subscriber data unless a customer specifically approved distribution of their information. The prohibition applies to cable, satellite master antenna systems, direct-broadcast satellite and multi-point distribution systems. It specifically excludes Internet providers.

Violators would be subject to a $3,000 fine and a year in jail; they also could face civil suits.

Heavy-hitters are lining up on both sides of the debate. Joining Bowen in support of the privacy bill are the state Attorney General's Office, the Privacy Rights Clearing House and the California Public Interest Research Group.

Microsoft, which is trying to protect its WebTV and UltimateTV investments, has come out against the measure. America Online, the Internet Alliance, the California Cable Television Association and the California Electronics Council also have voiced their opposition.

Opponents have cited many problems with the bill, beginning with the fact that the term "video providers" is vague. With convergence, for example, many new products offered by local cable systems are delivered on shared networks, therefore an operator may be held responsible for data that is not always in one system's custody.

According to testimony at a recent meeting of the state senate's Committee on Public Safety, opponents also argued that the legislation seeks to oversee services that are not legally classified as cable services, and therefore not subject to cable regulation.

Microsoft lobbyists believe the bill could have a chilling effect on the development of new Internet products, while AOL wants to protect development of streaming video services. The service providers also favor an "opt out" policy that assumes consumers would allow the sharing of their information, unless they explicitly forbid it. That's less burdensome to businesses, company representatives said. But the senate committee did not buy those arguments, and voted 5-0 April 24 to move the bill along, this time to the senate's rules committee.