Internet Privacy: Back to Basics

Deep into the second quarter of the year and after months spent struggling to survive, e-tailers are finally shifting their focus back to the basics, including, of course, consumer privacy.

With the economy finally showing signs of stabilizing, Web merchants are confronting the issue of who should serve as regulator of online privacy — private industry or the government.

Industry remains committed to self-regulation, while government seems to be waffling about its own position. The George W. brigade in Washington has yet to present a united front on almost anything connected with electronic commerce.

Too Many Cooks?

Not long ago, a request by public advocacy groups that the president appoint a privacy czar met with a lukewarm response from the White House. Calling privacy a “top priority,” a White House spokesman said an official within the Office of Management and Budget would focus on Web site security.

Interestingly, although the president seems undecided about the official administration approach to Web privacy, the overall issue has taken on a new sense of urgency among lawmakers and more than one branch of the federal government.

Late last month, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that the Justice Department intends to appoint an Internet privacy aide. Days later, Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans revealed his own intention to appoint a privacy advisor. Evans’ appointee will be responsible for monitoring the Commerce Department’s Web sites to ensure privacy policies are being enforced.

Some observers wonder if the government’s uneven approach to Internet privacy has to do with a lack of knowledge about the technology that drives the Web. How can legislators and governmental agencies truly regulate an industry they do not understand?

Bureaucratic Meltdown

Meanwhile, American consumers are left with a lack of trust in their government’s ability and willingness to protect their individual privacy.

That lack of trust may prove a major stumbling block for legislators gaining credibility with their constituents.

This year, almost 50 pieces of legislation relating to privacy have been introduced in Congress. The sheer number of bills on the table speak volumes to consumers.

Dubious Messages

First, it is a signal that our legislators are far from a consensus on a proper approach to protecting consumer privacy.

Second, the extreme variables in many of these bills suggests a lack of understanding among elected officials as to what consumers want and need in terms of protection on the Internet.

And finally, many of the bills have to do with whether Web sites can legally gather and even sell information about consumers without their permission.That boggles the minds of some consumers who remain incredulous that the government would even consider such an invasion of privacy.

Bad to Worse

Further complicating matters is an effort among some lawmakers to add offline business privacy measures to the same bills that address Internet privacy.

Because the privacy issues online and offline are vastly different, any attempt to pass a bill that combines the two is bound to delay urgently needed solutions for online businesses.

Meanwhile, the Big Daddy of commercial regulation, the Federal Trade Commission, continues to promote the idea that the government should regulate online privacy.

The FTC has steadfastly adhered to its recommendations of one year ago that asked Congress to enact legislation that overtly favors consumer rights over industrial autonomy. The FTC suggested that consumers always be offered a choice in how their personal information is used, and be provided easy access to any data collected about them online.

Among the myriad of ideas offered up from the U.S. government so far, the FTC’s common sense approach is the most reasonable.

Inalienable Rights

Even though online privacy is still new territory for industry and government, everyone involved needs to take one giant step back and look at the big picture.

Privacy is a moral value in this culture, one that Americans hold in high esteem. It is not for sale and it is not debatable, despite the current firestorm of controversy between industry and government, and even among elected officials.

Any individual or group taking steps to regulate online privacy would do well to remember that first, and proceed accordingly.

Technology is best used to enhance the lives of consumers. Any attempt to use technology to the detriment of consumer personal power and longstanding right to privacy is unacceptable.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.


Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necesarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


6 Comments

  • Debate, discuss, debate, discuss — meanwhile, nothing happens besides online merchants abusing consumer privacy. There are several technologies now available that provide privacy on the Internet, and a couple actually eliminate the need for any legislation (which is a bad approach anyway — the technology changes too fast for legislators to keep up). The retailers on the Web don’t perceive those as being in their interest, and consumers have a hard time finding out about them. Two of the better are found at http://www.iprivacy.com and http://www.onlineprivacyguard.com.

    • The scariest thing about online privacy is that most of us don’t have any, and haven’t had any for quite a while.

      It’s already too late to regain all the privacy we have lost; instead we need to focus on regulating how the information companies have about us can be used.

      The U.S. is a holdout when it comes to privacy laws; most European countries already have enacted privacy legislation to protect their citizens’ data.

      One of the best books I’ve read on the subject of privacy protection is Database Nation: The Death of Privacy in the 21st Century, by Simson Garfinkel. Highly recommended if you’re trying to get a grasp of the issues involved.

      • Privacy rights have been fading away for years and the computer has certainly accelerated the trend. Now with the Internet recording every browse and buy — and databases being so easily meshed — the concept of what should be private has changed entirely. It’s high time to change it back. I agree that people need to be more outraged about these issues.

  • I completely agree with the premise that privacy is my right. I cannot understand why the American consumer is being so cavalier in his or her approach to these issues. Compromising our online privacy right now will come back to haunt us in the future.

    Actually, I’m one of those who used to decry the advancement of government into issues surrounding the new economy, but now I’ve changed my mind. I truly want to see some regulations put in place that all online businesses must adhere to.

    We’ve become a complacent culture, and it’s this complacency that could easily bring us down in the information age. I’m concerned about it and I think all of you should be too.

  • The concern for privacy for all is an issue that many people have different thoughts about. I for one ACCEPT this. With the infancy of the Internet, privacy means so much RIGHT NOW. Being bombarded with so many information, it’s difficult enough to sort out which ones are suited to ones’ needs, and @ times, a large percentage of those are pure CRAP!

    I encourage all of you to take a stand and embrace your own rights to privacy. It’s crucial to all mankind. Stand up for what you feel and believe!

  • Somehow every business hopes that somebody else will be the one to deal with privacy issues so they don’t have to. I predict that web privacy will be the biggest issue in the wired (and soon, wireless) world.

    The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) has been universally ignored by most businesses that deal directly with children. Those businesses still serve invisible cookies with their web pages. They still gather information from children without parents consent or knowledge and they don’t display prominent and effective privacy policies on their sites. They don’t allow parents access to the information provided by their children or notify parents when children do provide private information.

    Why is everyone waiting for something to happen? It’s time to take online privacy seriously and protect consumer privacy seriously. It’s easy to do the reasonable things required by the FTC to remain in compliance with privacy laws. It is time to get serious about privacy and do it proactively!

    Mike Banks Valentine

    http://COPPA.org

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