Clinton: Online Privacy Lags Behind Technology

Measures to protect consumer privacy online are not keeping up with technological advancements, President Clinton said Sunday in a commencement address at Eastern Michigan University.

Clinton said consumer privacy is being compromised because technology makes it too easy for personal information to be collected and disseminated.

Clinton contends that existing privacy protections — even those included in banking deregulation legislation he signed late last year — do not go far enough in preventing firms from sharing information about consumers with one another.

“I believe that is wrong,” Clinton said.

“The same technology that links distant places can also be used to track our every move online,” Clinton said. “In this information age we can’t let new opportunities erode old fundamental rights. We can’t let breakthroughs in technology break down laws of privacy.”

Walking a Fine Line

The Clinton administration, which has long been a proponent of a laissez-faire approach to electronic commerce, has recently found itself in a position of having to speak up for the rights of consumers regarding the Internet.

Just last month, Clinton made a trip to the West Coast to emphasize the need to close the digital divide and provide equal access to the Internet for people in all socio-economic strata.

The DoubleClick debacle earlier this year — in which the Internet advertising firm came under fire for connecting personal identities with anonymous user surfing preferences — forced the administration to take more aggressive steps to investigate and ultimately protect consumers from what some see as online predators.

Now Clinton is proposing a requirement for companies to tell customers it intends to share sensitive consumer information such as medical and insurance records, or lists of what people buy and where they buy it. Consumers would also have the option not to have that information shared.

Significantly, consumers would also be told up front about a company’s privacy policy, so they could shop around for companies that offer the best protection. Consumers often find out about a firm’s privacy policy after they have decided to go forward with a transaction.

Will Gore Carry the Torch?

The proposal comes at a time when Clinton’s influence with the Republican-led Congress is at an all time low, making passage of the plan unlikely during this election year.

The White House is referring to the new proposal as “the Clinton-Gore plan,” banking on Vice-President Al Gore to succeed Clinton in the White House and carry on the President’s initiatives for online privacy. Gore will most likely make consumer privacy a campaign issue and part of his platform.

Common Thread

This instance is not the first time that Clinton has made an issue of online consumer privacy.

Earlier this year, in his State of the Union address, Clinton made a point of addressing the need to protect the privacy of bank and credit card records and other financial statements.

Sunday, the President echoed those sentiments, saying that “A bank is not just a bank.” There are downsides to having an interconnected Web of corporations and services that make many daily tasks easier for many consumers, Clinton said.

The President said in March, “We know we have to keep cyberspace open and free because it sparks creativity and innovation. But freedom requires a certain space of privacy.”

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