Panel: Privacy Is Non-Existent

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NEW YORK -- Though fierce national debate continues over the collection and use of personal data online, consumer privacy disappeared long before marketers adopted the Internet, according to panelists at "New Media Summit '99: A Deeper View," an event held here yesterday.

"Privacy is basically already dead," said Bob Pringle, president of online health site InteliHealth ( during remarks at the event co-sponsored by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and Forbes Inc.

More important is how to protect sensitive health-related information while making it available to doctors and healthcare providers. Sensitive information must be private but transportable so the right people can have access to it and the wrong people don't, Pringle said adding "it can be very hard to tell those people apart."

Representing privacy advocates, however, David Sobel compared today's data-collection practices to the United States' ecological environment 25 years ago. "We passed laws and I would argue that the environment is better today," said Sobel, general counsel to the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, DC.

"Privacy is not dead. It's under assault," he said. "Just because the problem has gotten to where it is today doesn't mean 'it's too late, let's just forget about it.'"

Of particular concern is that Internet companies are being bombarded with subpoenas from lawyers beginning to realize the impact online data can have on their cases, he added.

Sobel noted that federal law currently protects video-rental and cable-subscription information, but inexplicably little else. Also, companies like Blockbuster Video seem to have weathered the regulations just fine, he said.

"We're just advocating a reasonable across-the-board approach," he said.

Also advocating an across-the-board approach, but from a decidedly different point of view, was Thomas Evans, president and CEO of GeoCities, Marina Del Rey, CA.

"You already have no privacy. Get over it," he said, paraphrasing a colleague and noting the mountains of data available offline.

"Why are we trying to impose a level of privacy [on the Internet] that exists nowhere else?" he said.

Last year, the Federal Trade Commission in its first action on privacy reached a settlement with GeoCities ( after charging the personal home page provider with deceptive privacy practices.

Evans contended that Microsoft Corp.'s announcement last month that it is requiring all of its online advertising partners to post a privacy policy and a similar announcement from IBM earlier this year should be applauded from a consumer-awareness standpoint, but that they are hypocritical policies.

"They buy advertising in magazines currently sliced by demography, geography, age, income, sex, buying patterns, SIC code, title, size of company… unbeknownst to the person receiving that message," said Evans. "Now we're going to tell people on the Web we're only going to [advertise on] sites that acknowledge this privacy issue. They haven't said the same thing to the magazine world. They haven't said the same thing to television."

What truly fuels the privacy debate are government agencies vying for control, said Evans. "If you don't think this is political, you need to look behind the curtain."

Also, he said, market forces will punish irresponsible companies.

"The market is very Darwinian. Companies will do well or do poorly based on how they treat the customer."

Meanwhile, Sobel said most people cannot make informed choices concerning the collection and use of personally identifying information online. "Ninety percent of the people using this medium do not know what's going on behind the scenes."

For example, someone with an embarrassing medical condition could set themselves up for trouble by typing related keywords words into a search engine during research.

"You might not like it if a perspective employer got access to that information a couple of years from now and decided not to hire you, or an insurance company decided not to give you coverage," said Sobel. "If we were only talking about catalogs and soliciting phone calls, most people in the room would say that would be OK. Think over the past year of all the search terms you have used and if you would like that information re-marketed associated with your name."

Also on the panel was Richard Purcell, manager of customer information at Microsoft.

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