That privacy rules should apply to online data gathering seems to us hardly open to argument. Consumers polled by Louis Harris & Associates said they are concerned about what business learns about them when they journey on the Web, even if few could cite problems. A juicy scandal could turn this latent fear about business on the Web to a clamor for government crackdowns.
But whose rules should apply? Should it be new regulations from the Federal Trade Commission or Congress? Self-regulatory standards established by industry groups? Policies set by individual marketers for use on their Web sites? Our answer is all of the above.
Privacy policies should start at home, with marketers, and it's surprising to us that one widely publicized survey claims that among the operators of 100 top Web sites, only a handful had formal policies about how they collect and handle data from site users. Any business that gets data from customers or potential customers should already know internal rules are needed to govern collection and use. Extending or adapting those rules to the Web is common sense and good business; not doing so is irresponsible.
It's also known that self-regulation works in the national advertising arena. Through the active participation of marketers, it creates consensus in the business community about what is and is not honest conduct and fair play in advertising. And self-regulation polices the marketplace to find those who stray. It can do the same in applying consensus standards in the privacy area, even where the subject is the privacy of children. FTC should know this too well to substitute government regulations for well-supported self-regulatory programs.
But the best self-regulation still rests on some foundation of law that, as a last resort, can be applied by government to businesses that choose to live on the edge and refuse to accept industry norms of behavior. If present law does not now provide simple and basic conduct rules, then new laws or regulation may be needed.
This is not an endorsement of demands by privacy groups and consumerists for punitive regulation that would make data collection on the Web impossible. Far from it. The facts don't justify it and most of the millions of Americans that flocked to the Web in recent years know and accept a big dose of commercialism in their media. What they want is honest and open dealing by marketers when personal information is gathered. And marketers should see that they get it-through whatever means necessary.M
t's doubtful Federal Communications Commission members James Quello and Rachelle Chong ever imagined they would be at the center of a war over liquor advertising on TV. But their votes bar the way to Chairman Reed Hundt's plan to have FCC investigate and judge whether liquor commercials are so toxic to the public well-being that they be declared unfit for broadcast.
And Ms. Chong and Mr. Quello correctly observed that such an inquiry could hardly be limited to liquor alone, but would inevitably deal with TV ads for all alcoholic beverages.
So there they were last week: targets of a letter from Attorney General Janet Reno supporting an FCC investigation, and of a warning by anti-alcohol militants that "it's time to act or get out of the way."
Chairman Hundt, however, is following a course that could make this agency a battleground not just for liquor or beer commercials but for any other controversial product or service seeking access to TV time. That's too much power over otherwise honest ads, and advertisers and these FCC members are right