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Net privacy debate spurs self-regulation

By Published on .

If internet groups get their way, dealing with privacy issues on the Web could be a lot like the haggling that goes on in car dealerships.

Want to access a premium version of that news site? It'll cost you some personal data. Want one site to know where you live but not another one? You'll be able to negotiate that as well.

A year after the Federal Trade Commission began looking into online privacy concerns, Internet groups are using this week's hearings in Washington to unveil technology that might stave off some government regulation.


In one corner is the Platform for Privacy Preferences, or P3. Developed by the World Wide Web Consortium, an Internet governing body, with the Center for Democracy & Technology, a public policy group dealing with technology issues, P3 may not quite turn the Web into a car lot, but the haggling it encourages bears more than a passing resemblance.

As of now, consumers visiting a site have little control over what will happen to information they provide. P3 would return control to the consumer, then allow electronic negotiations between marketer and consumer over what happens to the information.

You don't want to let marketers retain any information? A site might offer up a dialogue box saying something like, "Hey, if you want Chicago Cubs baseball scores and news to pop up automatically when you visit our site, you need to let us keep data on your favorite team."


You reply, "OK, but I still don't want you to keep my address." Up pops another dialogue box saying, "Can we at least keep your ZIP code so we can track where most of our readers come from?"

Information on your responses is stored, and any further use of it is subject to your restrictions.

"There is a real lack of information about privacy," said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy & Technology. "If the consumer gets to make the decisions, then we don't need to argue" about restrictions the government should impose.

The center is advocating P3 as a simple alternative to new laws, giving consumers a choice of what they want to disclose while retaining an option for enforcement.

"These types of projects are really hot areas," said Joe Reagle, a policy analyst with World Wide Web Consortium. "One of the problems in creating a market is creating an environment in which consumers feel comfortable."

Another group, led by Netscape Communications Corp., is offering a separate solution.

The Open Profiling Standard aims to allow a consumer to keep a file of personal information on his hard drive and dictate how sites use that information. Produced without input from Netscape rival Microsoft Corp., which has yet to take a position on the standard, OPS fills three roles. It avoids the need for consumers to re-enter identical data at different sites. It gives consumers greater control over privacy. And it allows consumers to see and respond to information that otherwise might be obtained via cookies.

Consumers "have explicit control," said Martin Haeberli, Netscape director of technology.

Netscape has signed a number of media and hardware companies as partners and also has an endorsement from eTRUST.


Some partners said their endorsement was of the concept of a standard rather than individual solutions.

"We have a chance to have a common standard. That is its biggest advantage," said Hira Advani, IBM Corp.'s program director for network computing technology. "One standard is better than multiple standards."

"We don't want a special interest group seizing the debate on this issue and suddenly seeing some rules imposed that don't make anybody happy," said Brian Sroub, VP-marketing with Hearst New Media.

Copyright June 1997, Crain Communications Inc.

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