WASHINGTON - The privacy-rights movement collided head-on with the free flow of information from states to automotive businesses.
Congress last week sent to President Clinton a measure to prohibit states from disclosing driver and motor vehicle information to third parties for marketing purposes without motorists' consent.
The measure gives motorists the right to 'opt in' before information could be disclosed, replacing the 'opt out' in current law. The effect would be that far fewer records would be open to outsiders.
The change is part of a rider to the fiscal 2000 federal transportation spending bill, which Clinton is expected to sign.
Mike Stanton, vice president for government affairs of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said lawyers are studying the bill to determine its impact on carmakers. But Stephen Polk, CEO of Polk Co. in Southfield, Mich., said he already knows his operations will be hurt severely.
The company, with more than 4,000 employees and revenue of about $420 million a year, packages driver and vehicle registration information for use by car companies, dealers and others.
Polk said consumers would suffer in the long run from a clamp on information. He said businesses would have to pass higher market research costs on to customers.
The Polk chairman said he also dislikes the way the lawmakers handled the measure, which was slipped into the spending bill without hearings or debate.
Some congressional staff said late last week that the Senate Judiciary Committee may hold a hearing on the provision before it is scheduled to take effect next June. A spokeswoman for Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., said the senator does not oppose a hearing. Shelby is chairman of the transportation subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee and is the author of the provision.
Shelby was motivated to toughen protection of motorist information by a series of stalking incidents, the spokeswoman said. The most widely known of them was the 1989 murder of TV actress Rebecca Schaeffer by a man who got her address from California motor-vehicle records.
In 1994, that crime spurred the federal government to pass a law giving motorists the right to opt out of having information disclosed. Many states enacted increased privacy protection on their own.
Some states, led by South Carolina, challenged the 1994 federal law as an unconstitutional usurpation of their authority. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in the case in November.
Staff Reporter Jean Halliday in Detroit contributed to this report