A new online privacy initiative set up in the US last week has come under fire from Internet privacy groups and the US Department of Commerce for being toothless.
The Online Privacy Alliance, set up by nearly 50 companies including Microsoft, Netscape, the American Advertising Federation, Procter & Gamble, Ford and Ernst & Young, was formed to create effective privacy policies for the Web. The lack of protection of data given by users online is one of the stumbling blocks to Ecommerce, as people fear such information may be misused.
However, the US Department of Commerce has criticised the report, opening the possibility that the US government may reject the Alliance's calls for industry self-regulation. European Internet users are already protected by the EU data protection laws.
"I am not sure if privacy self-regulation really works within the US, and regulation by means of data protection laws may be a better solution," said Yaman Akdeniz, head of Cyber-Rights & Cyber-Liberties (UK).
The Alliance has published a set of privacy principles for companies setting up Web sites, including allowing users to withhold information, securing the data, and giving users access to information they have disclosed.
A further set of guidelines is designed to protect children.
"Members of the Online Privacy Alliance will not collect data from preteens and will let consumers opt out of data collection requests, but it remains to be seen how effective this will be, as the Alliance does not represent the whole industry," said Akdeniz. "If it is not effective then data protection laws are a better solution."
The online industry has argued for more than two years that the US government should let the private sector establish rules for data collection and the use of personal information, but until now it has made little move to do so.
Technologies and systems for declaring privacy policies are available, such as the TrustE voluntary labelling system, software allowing people to express their privacy preferences to Web sites, and the emerging Platform for Privacy Preferences project (P3P) standard currently being considered by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).
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