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PC World

Take Net privacy into your own hands

April 9, 1999
Web posted at: 4:55 p.m. EDT (2055 GMT)

by Margret Johnston

Should privacy violators be publicly "outed" on the Web?

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(IDG) -- People who are worried about protecting their privacy on the Internet should mount a more courageous struggle in support of privacy measures and identify anyone who profits by collecting and reselling personal data, a privacy advocate said on Tuesday at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy 99 conference.

"The time has come for us to get real about this struggle," said Simon Davies, a fellow at the London School of Economics, setting the tone for the ninth annual event. "We have to ratchet up the war for privacy just one more notch."

Davies, who also represents Privacy International, said he has become so enraged by lassez faire attitudes toward privacy protection that he is considering a campaign to "out" the people who use the World Wide Web to gather private data and redistribute it for profit.

Borrowing terminology from gay rights activists, Davies said the "outing" tactic would identify the people who are collecting the data for money-making purposes. The tactic could also involve billboards that not only show pictures of the privacy violators, but also give their addresses, list their assets, and supply other sensitive personal information about them found on the Internet.

"It would say 'here's how it feels to be violated this way,'" Davies said. "Hopefully they will understand the importance of the issue and how vulnerable people feel."

Davies said he is already compiling a list of "violators," and Thursday's presentation at the CFP conference of Privacy International's Big Brother Award to three U.S. politicians and one U.S. businessperson would provide a clue as to who would deserve the notoriety.

Other privacy advocates on the panel sounded nearly as alarmed as Davies about lax attitudes toward privacy, but representatives from the U.S. Commerce Department and America Online defended current attempts to rely on self regulation and other less government-intrusive means of regulating privacy.

Is self-regulation an oxymoron?

In the United States, the self-regulation approach advocated by the Clinton administration has given companies leeway to test the boundaries of privacy based on public response to their policies.

The administration is aware that profit is the goal of businesses operating on the Internet, but it's also in any company's best interest to avoid offending its customers, said Paula Breuning, a lawyer for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in the Commerce Department.

"The driving force behind self-regulation is choice," Breuning said, adding that the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has enough enforcement authority to keep companies honest. But even though the White House hopes some companies will emerge to lead the way on self-regulation, Breuning admitted that it's a policy that is still being tested.

The administration "hasn't put an imprimatur" on its self-regulation policy, Breuning said.

Europeans beg to differ

In contrast to the U.S. approach, companies based in Europe must comply with a European Union privacy directive that went into effect last year, restricting the use of data collected on individuals and requiring them to give people access to data about themselves. Breuning said the United States and Europe are still negotiating how the directive applies to U.S. companies that do business in Europe, and have set mid-June as their deadline for reaching agreement.

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Though the directive has been in effect since October, EU countries so far have upheld an agreement not to disrupt data flows to the servers of U.S. companies operating in the EU.

Despite the directive, Europeans still have the power to waive their rights, said George Vrandenburg, senior vice president of America Online.

"If, in fact, a consumer wants to make a different choice ... because they achieve a benefit or value, then it should be within the consumer's ability to do so," Vrandenburg said. He also noted that there have been several examples of individuals using the Internet as a "megaphone" to right wrongs committed by companies that go too far with their privacy policies.

A lifelong right

Highlighting deeper socioeconomic concerns, Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute, said the failure to respect a person's privacy, particularly the sanctity of information about crimes or controversial activities of youth, could bring disastrous results.

"We may force people into a pattern that prevents them from making something of themselves and something that is conducive to our society," Neier warned.

The best approach to regulating privacy at this time in the development of the Internet, he suggested, might be to take an area, such as the privacy of medical records, and work hard to reach an international agreement on privacy measures, and then expand from there.

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