Marketers that claim they can implement Internet privacy policies without the involvement of government are about to get close scrutiny from the Federal Trade Commission, which is launching its most detailed survey yet of marketer Web sites.
The FTC said last week it will create a sampling of Web sites for a survey next month that will include major sites aimed at children and adult consumers, as well as a sample of sites in industries consumers are most likely to use.
"We hope on the face of it to gather some evidence of the degree to which self-regulation has been taken on the Internet," said David Medine, FTC associate director for credit practices.
The survey could be of crucial importance to marketers, setting an agenda for FTC regulation of the Internet and perhaps influencing future FTC and congressional views about industry self-regulation.
SNAPSHOT ON PRIVACY
"It is going to be a snapshot that will become public on where we are on privacy," said Dan Jaffe, exec VP of the Association of National Advertisers. He said that with this report, as well as others coming out from the Commerce Department and the European Union, "There is going to be enormous attention focused on the privacy issue."
The FTC already has spent considerable time studying privacy issues on the Web. A yearlong study of various issues culminated in a hearing last summer and a report outlining privacy problems.
FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky, however, chose not to take immediate action, accepting advertising and direct marketing groups at their word that they would push their members to implement privacy policies.
In a letter to Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R., Ariz.), Mr. Pitofsky disclosed the upcoming March survey and promised the agency would come back to Congress this June with recommendations.
"Our recommendations ... will take into account whether the initial [industry] efforts ... are translated into broader industry progress toward effective self-regulation," he wrote last July.
GOAL: HAVE AN INFORMED DEBATE
To select adult sites to review, the agency will use an as-yet undetermined list of top Web sites. Sites aimed at children will be chosen from Yahooligan's!, the kid's area of Yahoo!. Additional sites will be selected from the consumer categories in a listing of Web sites gathered by Dun & Bradstreet.
The FTC will be searching for some reference to sites' privacy policies, how easy it is for consumers to find those policies and whether the policies provide consumers access to the information that is collected, even if that access is not available on the Web. In the adult categories, the FTC will examine whether sites explain what their policies are. For children's sites, the survey will be more detailed, with information gathered about parental involvement.
The FTC's report to Congress will include information from its own survey and may also make note of new self-regulation efforts unveiled by industries and possibly reports by other groups about privacy, Mr. Medine said.
"Our goal is to have an informed debate in June with as much information as possible," said Mr. Medine. "Our long-term goal is to make consumers comfortable with using the Internet by making sure they have security and privacy."
Copyright February 1998, Crain Communications Inc.