Internet Privacy Rated as Improved

Article excerpt

Privacy protection on the Internet has improved in the past year, but consumer groups remain concerned that some companies are not doing enough to safeguard on-line shoppers.

Nearly 66 percent of companies that sell goods and services on line now tell customers how they use personal information collected during the course of business, according to a new study.

That compares with a finding last June by the Federal Trade Commission that just 14 percent of companies provided any information about privacy practices, and only 2 percent had what the federal government considered a comprehensive policy.

The new study, done by Georgetown University business professor Mary Culnan, comes as the FTC, with backing from consumer groups, is considering proposing a privacy policy to govern the burgeoning on-line industry.

Consumers are expected to spend an estimated $52 billion on-line by 2001, according to Forrester Research, a technology industry research firm.

The Georgetown study looked at 364 sites picked randomly from the 7,500 busiest Web sites during January 1999.

"I think the self-regulation efforts being made deserve credit for moving the numbers up," said Jerry Berman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based organization that opposes government regulation of electronic commerce.

But just 9.5 percent of the companies had what is considered a comprehensive privacy policy, as outlined by the industry group Online Privacy Alliance.

Those sites gave consumers a chance not to have their personal information collected, allowed them to review their information, promised to keep the information secure and explained how to contact the company with questions.

Even though more companies are posting privacy notices than were a year ago, consumer groups are skeptical.

"These are just numbers. Numbers don't indicate actual practices, and we still see several examples of privacy problems," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based nonprofit consumer education group.

One example of an on-line privacy transgression occurred last year at GeoCities' Web site, a virtual community consisting of personal home pages. The Santa Monica, Calif.-based company had a privacy policy but violated its own rule when it misrepresented the reason it collected information from consumers.

"What we have to watch is the actual practice, not the edict," Mrs. Givens said.

The report has fueled debate over how much regulation on the World Wide Web is too much. …