Is there a privacy double standard on the Web?
June 17, 1998
by Industry Standard editors
(IDG) -- When the Federal Trade Commission publicly lambasted Web businesses earlier this month for failing to protect consumer privacy, it appeared to have the facts on its side. According to the FTC's report, a full 92 percent of commercial Web sites and 89 percent of children's sites collect personal information about the people who visit them.
Such figures conjure visions of webmasters selling lists of credit card numbers on the digital black market or gathering data on unsuspecting kids. The stats have led the FTC to call for congressional legislation protecting the privacy of kids online.
But we don't buy it. A closer look at the FTC's methodology shows the threat to consumer privacy was grossly overstated by both the FTC and the media that covered the story (The Industry Standard included).
When the FTC said an overwhelming number of sites collect personal information, it really meant that somewhere Ð anywhere Ð on a site there exists a box to enter your name or e-mail address. Or there's a registration form. It doesn't mean sites force you to provide information. Nor does it mean they're watching your movements or stealing data from your hard drive.
Anyone who spends any time on the Web knows that its value lies in the potential for interaction between users and sites. But exploiting that interaction isn't the same as gathering information without someone's consent Ð which is what the FTC implies.
If the same methodology were applied to magazines, catalogues or consumer financial services, 100 percent would fail the test, because they ask for subscribers' names and addresses.
The FTC stands by its findings, and commissioner Mozelle Thompson says he doesn't think the report is misleading. He reiterates that the FTC has real concerns about privacy on the Web.
We do, too. It's true that sites can gather and sell user information without users' knowledge. Kids don't know better when sites ask them to enter their name and address for a contest.
These are good reasons to enact strict privacy policies. But the FTC is clearly holding the Internet to a higher standard than other media.
Magazines routinely buy and sell subscriber lists. Though the Direct Marketing Association recommends that publishers let subscribers "opt out," few comply, and no federal regulations to force compliance are in the works. If protecting kids is the issue, then we've got a file cabinet full of possible regulations involving things like advertising in schools.
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