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Net-privacy policies bark, but they don't bite

PC World

April 18, 2000
Web posted at: 9:24 a.m. EDT (1324 GMT)

(IDG) -- Enonymous.com, a company best known for its digital wallet, has released a report on the privacy policies of over 30,000 Web sites. The good news is that most of these sites have policies. The bad news is that these policies don't promise much.

According to the report, about 63 percent of the sites surveyed post a privacy policy. This is a major improvement. According to Pacific Research Institute's Sonia Arrison, "As recently as 1998, the FTC found that only 2 percent of sites provided a comprehensive privacy policy."

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Still, there's a large gap between posting a policy and posting a good one. Junkbusters founder Jason Catlett points out that most of today's policies "are not promising a whole lot of privacy and what they are promising appears to be getting worse."

The Internet Privacy report agrees with that verdict. Only 3.5 percent of the surveyed sites have policies that earned enonymous' highest rating: four stars.

To make that grade, a policy must promise not to contact you without permission, and not to share personally identifiable information with third parties. It must also promise not to suddenly change.

Tim Kane, enonymous' Director of Privacy and co-author of the report uses Amazon.com as an example. The bookseller "has a great policy," he says, except for one sentence that "admits that the policy can change at any time." Enonymous.com gives Amazon a low one-star rating.

Bigger is (usually) better

As a rule, bigger sites did better than smaller ones, although there's still plenty of room for improvement.

A full 8.6 percent of the top 1,000 sites made the four-star rating. Why? According to Kane, "Bigger sites know how to write a better policy."

Who measures up?

What the report doesn't measure is how well companies live up to their own stated policies -- a far more difficult problem to measure.

While breaking promises could get a company into legal hot water, it's not unheard of. A study published in January by the California Healthcare Foundation found "instances where personally identified data is transferred to third parties in direct violation of stated privacy policies."

Such out-and-out lying is probably rare. It's much safer to tell the truth in such a way that most people will never figure out what you're saying.

According to Junkbuster's Catlett, the hidden meaning in most privacy statements is "Yes, we'll sell your information, and if you don't like it, you can go and pound sand."



RELATED STORIES:
Internet crime report irks privacy groups
March 31, 2000
New federal security policy on the way
March 6, 2000
The coming privacy divide
February 24, 2000
Transatlantic privacy talks may drag into 2000
September 28, 1999

RELATED IDG.net STORIES:
Web sites strive to personalize
(Computerworld)
Spam fears may be hurting e-commerce
(Computerworld)
Geeks, spies debate Web privacy
(PC World Online)
Is wireless surfing safe?
(PC World Online)
More cops on the Net beat?
(The Industry Standard)
FTC official: U.S. privacy violators not immune
(IDG.net)
Can Zero-Knowledge hush up the Net?
(The Industry Standard)
Ads have new ways to find you
(PC World Online)

RELATED SITES:
Internet Privacy Report
Enonymous.com
Junkbusters Corp.
California Healthcare Foundation

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