CNET tech sites: Price comparisons | Product reviews | Tech news | Downloads | Site map
Front PageEnterpriseE-BusinessCommunicationsMediaPersonal TechnologyInvestor

News.context: Special Reports | Newsmakers | Perspectives
Do privacy policies really protect you?
By Brian Livingston
June 30, 2000, 4:00 AM PT

Every e-commerce site seems to have a "privacy policy" these days--but American advocates of strong, European-style privacy laws say that weak policies may be worse than no policies at all.

In countries (such as the United States) that lack specific Internet privacy legislation, do privacy policies actually work to protect Web users? This issue has suddenly gained new urgency because of two recent developments:

 The Michigan attorney general has formally notified several U.S. Web sites that the state may file lawsuits against them. The state wants the sites' privacy policies to be rewritten to describe how visitors' information is shared with the advertising services of AdForce, DoubleClick, MatchLogic and Netscape Communications.

 The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) published on June 21 a standard called the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P). But privacy organizations such as Junkbusters and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) say P3P will tend to encourage weaker, not stronger, privacy practices.

One thing's certain: Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm got the attention of Web entrepreneurs when she threatened to sue.

One of the four Web sites that was, a pharmaceutical site operated by a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson--quickly changed its privacy policy to meet the state's concerns. promises that it will tell visitors how information they provide will be used.

John McKeegan, a Johnson & Johnson spokesman, said the state is "holding off on the suit" as a result of the site's changes.

Michigan Assistant Attorney General Tracy Sonneborn said the state's warning to sites was "the first state action regarding insufficient privacy policies we're aware of in the U.S." But it probably won't be the last.

Sonneborn said Web sites that serve people in Michigan are required to obey existing Michigan consumer notification laws. These laws appear to cover almost all Web sites, no matter where they are headquartered. The four sites the state initially notified are spread from Florida to Iowa.

"A Web site could say you have no privacy," Sonneborn said, "but the fact that a third party is collecting information from you is something that consumers cannot reasonably discover. It is also an important fact, especially if that third party is in the business of tracking users on the Internet."

Automatically detecting the privacy policies at various Web sites is the goal of the P3P guidelines for future Web browsers.

The W3C, which sponsored development of the standard, said in a statement that "users need not read the privacy policies at every site they visit" if their browser supports P3P. Updated Web browsers planned by Microsoft and other software makers could read policies from P3P-compliant Web sites for those users who configure the software properly.

But Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, said, "P3P is not a privacy standard in the sense of requiring a minimum level of privacy protection."

Catlett pointed out that, unlike the United States, the 12-nation European Union has adopted a consistent level of regulations that firmly protect individual privacy. The EU formally stated in 1998 that the P3P proposal would set "lower common standards" than existing international agreements require.

Karen Coyle, the author of "Coyle's Guide to the Information Highway" (published in 1997 by the American Library Association), said P3P will tempt Web sites to collect more information than they do today.

"All the sites are under the same pressure to collect as much customer information as possible to deliver to their advertisers," Coyle said.

Personal information supplied to a single Web site is often shared to create a database. For a quick demonstration, visit

P3P would do little to prevent this kind of sharing. To increase the number of Web surfers who feel comfortable shopping online, U.S. e-commerce sites may find that strong privacy laws would build more confidence than P3P ever will.

Do you know of a problem affecting consumers? Send info to He'll send you a book of high-tech secrets free if you're the first to submit a tip he prints.

More Perspectives

Brian Livingston has published 10 books, including "Windows 2000 Secrets" and "Windows Me Secrets." He has been a contributing editor at PC World, Windows Magazine, InfoWorld and other magazines for more than 10 years. Before his work as an author, Livingston was a management consultant advising financial institutions on computer technologies. In 1991, he received the Award for Technical Excellence from the National Microcomputer Managers Association for his efforts to develop standards in the computer industry.


Latest Headlines
display on desktop
GE sparks market rally
Loss grows for Corel
Microsoft puts a price on IM features
Prices fall for CD rewritable drives
Homestore execs agree to plead guilty
Hotwire double-bills customers
Penguin on the prowl
Web leak of Linux lets Hat out of the bag
PayPal goes international
Who's living large at Terra Lycos?
Crooks will still be crooks
Handspring lays off 20 percent
Nvidia chips grease faster PC link
Bell Labs fires researcher
Enron auction hampers DoveBid site
China arrests Web writer for subversion
Vivendi lays out new strategy
Study: Stop trying to lock out pirates
Computer makers gird for holiday battle
Ulead updates photo software
This week's headlines

News Tools
Get news by PDA
Get news by mobile
Listen live to CNET Radio

CNET newsletters Daily Dispatch

News.context (weekly)

Investor Daily Dispatch

Week in Review

All newsletters | FAQ
Manage my newsletters

Send us news tips | Contact Us | Corrections | Privacy Policy

   Featured services: CNET SearchBar | Hosting Providers | IT Resources | Back to School Guide | Tech Jobs   
  CNET Networks: | CNET | GameSpot | mySimon | TechRepublic | ZDNet About CNET  

Copyright ©1995-2002 CNET Networks, Inc.All rights reserved. CNET Jobs