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Study: 94% of top 100 Web sites post privacy policies

May 14, 1999
Web posted at: 2:09 p.m. EDT (1809 GMT)

by Tom Diederich
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Do you read the privacy policy notices of the Web sites you frequent?

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(IDG) -- Prompted by a government threat to start regulating privacy on the Internet, a new study indicates "significant progress" in the number of Internet sites that tell visitors how their personal information collected online will be used.

Consumer advocates, though, cautioned that simply posting a privacy policy doesn't guarantee adequate protection.

The study -- conducted this spring and paid for by a coalition of businesses and trade associations -- showed that 94% of the top 100 Web sites had privacy policies. Last year, just 71% offered the warnings. According to the survey, 98.8% of consumers visit at least one of those top 100 sites.

The study also included a random sampling of 364 of the 7,500 most visited Web sites. According to the results, 65.7% had posted at least one type of privacy disclosure.

"We're very pleased. This shows that the industry has made significant progress in the past year," said Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for America Online Inc. in Dulles, Va. "Clearly there is a great deal of work that remains to be done, but we think this shows that the strategy that the industry has outlined for taking strong proactive efforts in this area is paying dividends."

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AOL is a member of the Online Privacy Alliance, which paid for the study, conducted by Georgetown University Professor Mary Culnan at the Federal Trade Commission's request. The FTC has indicated that it will use the results in its recommendations to Congress this summer regarding the need for Internet privacy laws.

Last year, an FTC study showed that while 92% of commercial Web sites collected personal information from visitors, a mere 14% posted privacy policy notices (see story).

In a statement, FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said online firms "deserve considerable credit" for their progress over the past year. Whether the survey results will prevent or delay privacy laws remains to be seen, however.

"In the near future, the commission will send a report to Congress that will look beyond these raw numbers and offer a qualitative analysis of whether these privacy notices provide the information that consumers need to address their concerns about the use of their personal information and whether there are adequate enforcement mechanisms to insure that Web sites honor their privacy commitments," Pitofsky said.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), said legislation is the only real way to protect personal information collected online. "We think the case for legislation is growing day by day, and there is very little in this survey that suggests otherwise," Rotenberg said.

"Privacy should not end where the Internet begins. We have privacy for cable services and for video rental services and for telephone services," he said. "I don't see why the Internet should be a privacy-free zone when it comes to legal rights."

EPIC noted that less than 10% of the surveyed sites had policies that give users the chance to opt out of having their information collected, allow them to review their information, promise to keep the information confidential or explain how to contact the site operator to make inquiries.

Rotenberg suggested that groups so adamantly opposed to privacy laws "don't want the responsibility of providing real privacy protection."

"It's much easier if you can do whatever you want with the personal data that you get without any real legal consequence," he said. "That's the bottom line, and that's also the reason that if you're going to protect privacy, you need to establish real rights for people by law."

Industry groups, though, maintain that self-regulation is preferable to government requirements for a fast-changing, global medium like the Internet.

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Privacy laws coming if Net 'sweep' shows no progress
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Big online privacy study starts today
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Web sites rush to self-regulate
Debate: Regulators, keep out
(The Industry Standard)
Privacy policies should not be optional
(Federal Computer Week)
FTC blasts Web sites for inadequate privacy policies

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Federal Trade Commission
Online Privacy Alliance

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