Microsoft Corp. today announced its support for a comprehensive legislative approach at the federal level on the issue of data privacy. In a speech delivered to the Congressional Internet Caucus, Brad Smith, senior vice president and general counsel for Microsoft, told Caucus members that “the time has come” for a strong national standard for privacy protection that will benefit consumers and set clear guidelines for businesses while still allowing commerce to flourish.

Smith explained the three key factors that have led Microsoft to support a comprehensive federal legislative response: an increasingly complex patchwork of state, federal and even international laws related to data privacy and security; the potential for consumer fears about identity theft and other online dangers to dampen online commerce; and the increasing consumer desire for more control over the collection and use of online and offline personal information.

“The growing focus on privacy at both state and federal levels has resulted in an increasingly rapid adoption of well-intended privacy laws that are at times overlapping, inconsistent and often incomplete,” Smith said. “This is not only confusing for businesses, but it also leaves consumers unprotected. A single federal approach will create a common standard for protection that consumers and businesses can understand and count on.”

Smith noted an increasing level of concern from Americans on the subject of identity theft over the Internet.

“Individuals will not take full advantage of the Internet or any commercial medium if they believe that their information or data could be compromised or disclosed in unexpected ways,” Smith said. “There is a causal link here: protecting consumers promotes commerce, and that’s good for everyone.”

The third factor — consumers’ increasing desire for more control over the collection and use of their personal information — springs from the response to the increasingly aggressive tactics of computer criminals.

“We’ve seen a spate of legislative activity in the aftermath of several highly publicized data breaches, but for consumers, the reality is still pretty daunting. They do not necessarily have a better experience and in many cases still do not clearly understand how companies are collecting, using and disclosing their personal information in the first place,” Smith said. “We have to make this more transparent and manageable for consumers.”

“Microsoft’s call for strong national privacy legislation is a landmark moment in the cause of establishing and protecting individual privacy rights online,” said Jerry Berman, president of the Center for Democracy and Technology. “Microsoft’s privacy legislation commitment creates momentum for a serious effort to establish consumer privacy expectations for the digital age. While we have not reached consensus on all of the provisions of a privacy bill, we applaud Microsoft’s willingness to work actively with other high-tech companies, consumer organizations and policymakers to make serious privacy legislation a reality.”