c.2013 New York Times News Service

c.2013 New York Times News Service

State legislatures around the country, facing growing public concern about the collection and trade of personal data, have rushed to propose a series of privacy laws, from limiting how schools can collect student data to deciding whether the police need a warrant to tap cellphones.

Over two dozen privacy laws have passed this year in more than 10 states, in places as different as Oklahoma and California. Many lawmakers say that news reports of widespread surveillance by the National Security Agency have led to more support for the bills among constituents. And in some cases, the state lawmakers say, they have felt compelled to act because of the stalemate in Washington on legislation to strengthen privacy laws.

“Congress is obviously not interested in updating those things or protecting privacy,” said Jonathan Stickland, a Republican state representative in Texas. “If they’re not going to do it, states have to do it.”

For Internet companies, the patchwork of rules across the country means keeping a close eye on evolving laws to avoid overstepping. And the flurry of legislation has led some companies, particularly technology companies, to exert their lobbying muscles when proposed measures stand to harm their bottom lines.

“It can be counterproductive to have multiple states addressing the same issue, especially with online privacy, which can be national or an international issue,” said Michael D. Hintze, chief privacy counsel at Microsoft, who added that at times it can create “burdensome compliance.”

More than a year ago, the White House proposed a consumer privacy bill of rights, but Congress has not yet taken on the legislation. And a proposed update to the 27-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act has stalled.

Several legislators said they felt compelled to act because Congress had not. “They don’t act in the best interest unless it’s in their best interest,” said Daniel Zolnikov, a first-time legislator in Montana. Zolnikov, a Republican, suggested that the lack of action was because of lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill.

According to a survey conducted in July by the Pew Internet Center, most Americans said they believed existing laws were inadequate to protect their privacy online, and a clear majority reported making great efforts to mask their identities online. Some of those surveyed said they cleared browsing histories, deleted social media posts or used virtual networks to conceal their Internet Protocol addresses — and a few even said they used encryption tools.