“The Department of Commerce is back.” With those words Cameron Kerry, General Counsel of the U.S. Department of Commerce, made it clear the Department intends to take a leading role in shaping domestic privacy policy and representing U.S. privacy interests in international discussions. The announcement was made at the May 7, 2010, Department of Commerce symposium, “A Dialogue on Privacy and Innovation,” where the mostly business audience welcomed Mr. Kerry’s declaration with great enthusiasm.

In the 1990’s, during the Clinton Administration, the Department of Commerce led U.S. efforts to develop policy related to privacy on the Internet and encouraged the development of online privacy policies and privacy seal programs. Within the Department, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) authored numerous privacy position papers, and the International Trade Commission (“ITA”) negotiated the U.S.-European Union Safe Harbor Framework. During the Bush Administration and the first year of Obama’s tenure, however, the Department was largely silent on privacy issues.

Beginning last fall, the Department began holding sessions to investigate the effectiveness of privacy protections in the United States and the impact of privacy regulation on businesses. The sessions were led by Marc Berejka, Senior Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office at the Department of Commerce, and Danny Weitzner, Associate Administrator for the NTIA’s Office of Policy Analysis and Development. Over the past few months, the Department, in conjunction with NTIA and ITA, formed the Internet Policy Task Force and issued a notice of inquiry to discuss the “nexus between privacy policy and innovation in the Internet economy.

Last Friday’s day-long symposium included an introductory discussion on the global Internet economy and privacy that was followed by four panel discussions. Professor Fred Cate, Senior Policy Advisor with the Centre for Information Policy Leadership and Distinguished Professor of Law at Indiana University Law School, set the stage for the first panel on “Privacy, Innovation and Global Trade.” The participation of other Obama administration officials indicated that the Department is not alone in these efforts. White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin led a panel on “Privacy Frameworks and Innovative Uses of Personal Information,” and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State and U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy Phil Verveer spoke on the “Privacy on the Ground” panel.

The Department of Commerce will be receiving comments until June 7, 2010, on the notice of inquiry it issued on April 20, 2010. A draft paper is expected in early October, ahead of the Organization of Economic and Cooperation and Development’s conference on privacy and technology, and the 32nd International Data Protection and Privacy Commissioners Conference, both of which will take place in Jerusalem during the last week of October.