From: "Rodger, William" <wrodger () usatoday com>
To: "'farber () cis upenn edu'" <farber () cis upenn edu>
Subject: USA TODAY :Privacy self regulation "meaningless"
Date: Tue, 23 May 2000 17:26:48 -0400
May 23, 2000
Net privacy promises again come up short
Two years ago, a Federal Trade Commission survey found an alarming lack of
privacy policies among Web sites that collect lots of personal information.
The industry's response was: Don't worry; we'll take care of it.
Then last year, an independent survey found that while many Web sites posted
privacy policies, few offered meaningful protections. The industry's
response: Don't worry; we're making progress there, too.
Now a new FTC survey shows that those pledges not only were meaningless but
also -- when it comes to Internet privacy -- there's plenty of cause for
The report, released Monday, found that just one in five commercial Web
sites offers real privacy protection to visitors, which gives them notice, a
choice to opt out, access to sensitive data and promises of security.
Small wonder then that the FTC -- until now a fan of industry
self-regulation -- finally has lost patience. The agency is asking Congress
for the authority to impose some privacy rules on the online world, a move
that could go a long way to filling in the privacy gaps that Internet
companies refuse to fill in on their own.
As it now stands, consumers who want to protect their personal information
from being aggregated, collated and sold have little recourse.
A USA TODAY review of 10 major Web sites in early May found their policies
to be a confusing jumble of incomprehensible language riddled with
loopholes. (http://www.usatoday.com/life/cyber/tech/cth818.htm) Yahoo's
policy, for instance, is eight pages long. The FTC survey found fewer than
half of the sites had clearly worded procedures.
What's more, privacy-seal programs meant to reassure Web users aren't
exactly sweeping the Net. Just over 1,400 sites have signed up with the
industry-sponsored TRUSTe program, and only about 6,000 post the Better
Business Bureau's seal of approval. That's all of about 8% of commercial Web
sites, according to the FTC. Slow progress at best in an industry famed for
moving at a quicksilver pace.
Any hope for federal rules to pick up the slack is a long way off.
Republican leaders are opposed to regulations that in their view would
hobble the Internet. And the Clinton administration doesn't want to push the
issue in an election year.
But privacy protections needn't be overly complex or disruptive to the free
flow of information so critical to the Internet's success. The rules
protecting children's online privacy, already in force, have general
industry backing. And the FTC has said that it wants only modest rules
linked to continued industry self-policing.
Simply requiring that Web sites write their privacy policies in plain
English and offer consumers a chance to opt out of data-sharing arrangements
would be a good start.
The Internet community can be expected to fight any federal privacy role, no
matter how limited. It already is issuing fresh offers to beef up its own
efforts, and a new advisory council is set to meet next month.
But after all of these years, who can believe such promises now?
Will Rodger Voice +1 703
Technology Reporter Fax +1 703 558
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