That was the message from a two-day Federal Trade Commission hearing into cyberspace privacy issues last week that concluded with FTC Chairman Ro-bert Pitofsky issuing a surprise plea for voluntary industry codes rather than FTC rules.
"We are not shying away from regulation, but what happens if [a Web site's communication] is not deceptive or unfair?" asked Mr. Pitofsky, noting the FTC's legal authority is limited to those two areas and extending it would require congressional action.
Mr. Pitofsky said he saw an apparent consensus among consumer and industry groups that worries about privacy-together with those about convincing the public of the Web's viability as a commercial medium-necessitate adoption of new ethical standards for Web sites.
Further, new technology will allow consumers to restrict their own access to sites that don't comply.
Kraft Foods said it had recently stopped asking for the names and addresses of children entering its Oscar Mayer Foods Corp. home page because of privacy concerns and Kellogg Co. said it had added new safeguards to its Web sites.
CONSUMER GROUPS WANT MORE
Some consumer groups said they feel "voluntary" standards that get industry agreement aren't likely to be sufficient.
Major industry groups last week, however, proposed including significant restrictions in the way marketers use the Web to get information from consumers and the information they can get.
A ban on unsolicited e-mail that can't be automatically screened out. The Direct Marketing Association and the Interactive Services Association proposed requiring marketers who send unsolicited e-mail messages to use coding that would allow mail systems to automatically remove such messages.
Full and prominent disclosure of both the marketer's identity and the use for which information is being gathered in every communication. That proposal was made by several groups.
Rights of consumers to not only bar marketers from selling or sharing any information collected but to review the personal information collected. The Coalition for Advertising Supported Information & Entertainment-a consortium that includes the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers-made that suggestion.
Those programs are aimed at adults. Much of the biggest controversy at the hearing was about how much farther to restrict marketer's actions when the sites or pages are aimed at children.
The Center for Media Education, which drew congressional attention with a report challenging marketer's using product characters in Web pages to reach children, joined with the Consumer Federation of America to urge the FTC to adopt guidelines that would require marketers get verifiable parental consent before seeking any information used to identify a child.
Marketers who clearly identified themselves could seek aggregate information without parental consent under the proposal.
The FTC also heard of new technological possibilities developed to limit access to adult material that also could be used to let consumers ensure the sites they access meet privacy standards or in the case of children, limit their ability to provide information to the site.