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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

June 22, 1998

The consumer battle over online information privacy has just begun

The Federal Trade Commission recently issued a scathing report on Web sites' privacy policies (see "FTC blasts Web sites for inadequate privacy policies".) The FTC was particularly upset about sites collecting information on children and recommended that Congress develop legislation to protect the privacy of kids online.

This should come as no surprise. Companies that do business online are almost universally unconcerned with protecting consumer privacy, because the information they gather about online customers is so valuable to them. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens profess a great deal of concern about privacy -- in fact, in a recent study by CommerceNet, privacy was online consumers' No. 1 concern.

Given this dichotomy, it is only a matter of time before politicians pick up the privacy banner and start waving it at online commerce companies.

What is really surprising is the lack of organization on either side of the issue.

Covering your assets

So far, the companies have the upper hand. The status quo tends to favor them since online consumers -- despite protests to the contrary -- show themselves all too willing to give out loads of personal information, if given an incentive. Offer customers a lower rate, a chance to win a PalmPilot, or a free T-shirt, and they will tell you their height, weight, mother's maiden name, and more.

For those companies that are concerned about potential consumer backlash, there are certification programs such as TRUSTe, at http://www.truste.org, which guarantee that sites actually adhere to their published information privacy policies. (See "Lack of trust hurts consumer commerce for online retailers".)

If companies want to avoid government intervention in their personal information collection practices, they should develop information-privacy policies and seek certification by TRUSTe or other credible organizations.

Wanted: celebrity spokesperson

But consumers who are concerned about online privacy really need to get organized. As Congress and state and local governments take their first lurching steps towards drafting online privacy laws, consumers need to get involved.

One organization that advocates for online privacy rights is the Electronic Frontier Foundation. But the EFF, after a spate of activity a few years ago, has been relatively quiet as of late.

What the EFF needs if it is to reach its full potential as a privacy advocate is a big grass-roots organizing push. And nothing would help that more than a celebrity spokesperson. The National Rifle Association has Charlton Heston, so why couldn't the EFF name, say, Sandra Bullock as its spokeswoman?

Indeed, the EFF could take other pages from the NRA strategy book. Organizing local chapters of citizens concerned about privacy, publishing privacy-rights magazines, and helping to elect local officials committed to a privacy rights platform could all help the privacy cause.

If the EFF doesn't get involved in this kind of grassroots politicking, some other organization should. Otherwise, consumers will see their privacy rights divided up between the government and those online commerce companies big enough to command politicians' attention.

Dylan Tweney edits InfoWorld's intranet and I-commerce product reviews. He welcomes your comments at dylan@infoworld.com.

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