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Net privacy a tangled skein – FTC committee

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A US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) committee charged with making broad Net privacy recommendations can't seem to step forward with any solid conclusions on the issues.

After months of debate, several interim reports, a period of public commentary, and deep deliberations, the forty-member panel has generated a final report with a menu of options from which the FTC may choose. Following each possible choice are arguments for and against.

The committee considered two chief issues: enabling consumers to review their own stored details to ensure accuracy, and ensuring that private information is held securely on the Web.

Every potential solution is associated with a potential headache, cost, or technical flaw. For example, the committee notes that while cookies can be used for account authentication, and while they're cheap for Web sites and convenient for consumers, they're hopelessly insecure.

"The computer may have more than one user. The consequences of disclosing information about an individual's use of a Web site or clickstream data to another person (family member, co-worker, other) could be damaging," the report notes.

Not to mention that one might wish to access one's account from a computer other than that where the cookies are stored. Not to mention the inconvenience of recalling all of one's passwords following a fatal crash, when all those nice, convenient cookies have been wiped.

To make things really secure, a Web site could "require [a user's] account name and password in order to trigger the sending of a one-time access code through a separate communication channel" such as to an e-mail address.

This would be good for access to infrequently requested data, bad for routine access to an account. And so the report goes, finding a plethora of glitches to associate with each possible remedy, and not quite concluding that the Internet is simply not configured in its basic architecture for reasonable security or decent privacy protection.

It's a conclusion no one wants to reach, with the stakes of e-commerce as high as they are.

On-line advertisers and Web-based businesses have already projected themselves onto the Net with an overarching presumption that consumers get as much privacy protection as they deserve, and have invested lavishly in schemes based on that presumption. They whinge audibly about the cost of instituting privacy protections they ought to have put in place from day one, and throw money at anyone who shows the slightest bit of sympathy.

But consumers are far from satisfied, and, most ominously, legislators across the US are gearing up. Something on the order of a hundred privacy bills are currently pending in American state legislatures and in Congress, and new ones are proposed on an almost daily schedule.

It will now fall to the FTC to machete its way swiftly through the IP jungle and cut them off at the pass with something that industry, the public, and the politicians can all live with.

Of course the Commission could also continue to exercise the better part of valour, and leave it to the squabbling interested parties to slug it out in the legislatures and the courts. And after perusing this report, and noting all its palpable contradictions and switchbacks, we have to allow that they could hardly be blamed for doing precisely that. ®

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