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Yank consumer report underscores EU privacy concerns

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As electronic privacy negotiations between the US and EU deteriorate further in acrimonious deadlock, one of Uncle Sam's own has tossed a bit of ammunition to the opposition.

The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Centre (EPIC) issued a report Friday, Surfer Beware III: Privacy Policies without Privacy Protection, which finds that America's much-touted policy of self regulation does little to protect consumers' online privacy, just as the European Commission has suspected all along.

This is the third in a series of privacy surveys the organisation has conducted. The first EPIC survey, Surfer Beware: Personal Privacy and the Internet, provided a basis for the US Federal Trade Commission's subsequent review of online privacy practices, published in 1998. This time around EPIC looked at the one-hundred most popular shopping Web sites as listed by 100hot.com, which tracks Web site popularity by the number of homepage hits.

"On balance, we think that consumers are more at risk today than they were in 1997, when we first examined privacy practices on the Web," EPIC Director Marc Rotenberg said. Among the survey's findings:

  • Only 19 of the one-hundred sites surveyed belonged to industry self-regulation programmes such as TRUSTe or the Better Business Bureau Online.
  • A mere 23 sites solicited "opt-in" consent by consumers before subsequent collection and use of their personal information.
  • Just 20 companies appeared to limit the use of personally identifiable information to that required for the transaction.
  • Thirty-two sites allowed users to view and correct personal information such as their mailing address, e-mail address, or telephone number.
  • A whopping 86 per cent of the sites surveyed used cookies. Two sites - Tower Records and Kenneth Cole - did not permit users to visit their sites without generating cookies. "[Consumer] profiling is more extensive and the marketing techniques are more intrusive. Anonymity, which remains crucial to privacy on the Internet, is being squeezed out by the rise of electronic commerce," Rotenberg declared.

    He added that "legally enforceable standards.... and new techniques for anonymity are necessary to protect online privacy," which sounds remarkably like the official EC line. Either he's sleeping with the enemy, or the EC regulators are actually right for a change.

    Either way, this report is a timely illustration to a disagreement that could possibly end in a trade dispute and eventual WTO intervention, a potential outcome sufficiently disagreeable to get both sides negotiating in good faith, one would hope. ®

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