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Privacy on the Internet: Reality or Virtual Illusion?

Technology: Online users are told that their names and other info won't be used for marketing purposes. But some say the promises have no bite.


"Join now for free!"

The pitch is being heard with increasing frequency on the Internet these days, as Web sites reach out for a closer relationship with their users. By offering special sections with customized content or added features, the sites are enticing users to fill out online membership applications.

To join, users typically must provide some information about themselves--name, address, telephone number and e-mail address are common. Some sites go even further, asking for occupation, household income, hobbies and more.

But this data-gathering process is raising concerns among users and privacy advocates who fear sites are using or reselling personal information for marketing purposes.

That backlash, as well as the specter of government regulation, is prompting many of the Web's most popular sites to post new privacy policies to reassure users about what information is being tracked and what will be done with it.

Now the question arises: Do these privacy policies really offer any protections for users? Or are they just thinly veiled disclaimers that let Web sites use personal information however they wish?

Commercial site operators say the policies are substantial guarantees that prove that users can be protected and that the industry can police itself.

Some policies appear forceful. For example, Wired Digital, the company which runs the Wired magazine Web site, pledges it "will not release your personal data to anyone else--period."

"That's been something that we've been very sensitive to from the beginning," said Wired Digital spokesman Andrew de Vries. "We've always been very concerned about paying attention to people's rights online, and that obviously includes people who are our members."

Other policies are more circumspect, like this from bookseller "We do not now sell or rent information about our customers." (The company gives users a way to request that their personal information never be sold.)

But privacy advocates say many of the new policies aren't worth the pixels they're written on.

"The problem is that most of these policies are meaningless," said David Banisar, a senior analyst with the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "What they're out there for is to try to appease the public and the Federal Trade Commission, and to try to avoid having legitimate and meaningful privacy protections."

The temperature is rising on the online privacy debate for several reasons.

One factor is a decision by European countries to block the export of personal data to countries without adequate privacy guarantees. That decision takes effect next month and could seriously hamper some businesses if privacy protections in the United States are found to be inadequate.

Internet users also appear to be far more sensitive to privacy concerns on the Internet than they are in other arenas. Gathering of similar personal information by phone, mail or in stores hasn't produced nearly the same level of outrage the online version has.

As a result, several private-sector efforts are being launched to address such concerns. An example is Truste, a nonprofit consortium of about 120 major Web sites that have agreed on a standard privacy policy.

"We mandate [that] sites basically disclose what information they collect, what they do with that information and with whom that information is shared," said Paola Benassi, operations manager for Truste. "That allows a user to make an informed decision about whether to do business with that site or not."


Benassi said Truste also serves as an independent third party to check that Web sites are complying with their stated policies and to investigate consumer complaints. Truste licensees include such leading sites as Excite, CNET, Cyberian Outpost, WebCrawler, CommerceNet and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Another privacy effort is being undertaken by the World Wide Web Consortium. Its plan is to create software that will allow users to disclose personal information only to Web sites with certain levels of privacy guarantees.

Consumers may feel so strongly about protecting their privacy that they balk at Internet commerce.

"To me, this is the make-or-break issue," said U.S. Secretary of Commerce William M. Daley. "You can offer the best products, the best selection, the best distribution. But consumers need to feel a certain level of privacy.

"They know companies can collect vast amounts of information and instantly analyze it. And if they feel when they order a plane ticket or buy a stock that their personal transactions are being shared with others, then I say it will be the last time they do business on the Internet."

Ari Schwartz, an analyst at the Center for Democracy and Technology, said a good privacy policy should clearly tell users what information is being collected, why, how much is personally identifiable and what it will be used for.

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