Panel Warning on Privacy Fails to Grab @d:tech Audience

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San Francisco -- A "Privacy Super Panel," assembled for the opening day of @d:tech World here on Monday, all but resigned itself to the fact that government intervention is coming in regard to online consumer privacy.


Despite this fact, the speakers concluded that there was still much Web site owners could do to soften the blow and to protect consumers. However, many attendees were not there to receive this message.


While the seminar was well attended at the start, industry members slowly filed out as though the home team was down 10 runs in the final innings of a baseball game.


This is symbolic since privacy, perhaps the most important issue for marketers, isn't all that sexy. "The message was that establishing a strong privacy policy can give a business a strong competitive advantage," said Jim Nail, panel moderator and senior analyst for Forrester Research, Cambridge, MA. "Clearly, the advertising industry doesn't believe that. They didn't stick around to listen so I don't think it resonated with them."


Unfortunately, time may be running out this election year as the issue of consumer privacy protection will likely be brought to the forefront by candidates on both the state and national fronts, said Russ Bodoff, chief operating officer of the BBBOnline. "The industry is losing an opportunity. They've done a poor job of responding [to the issue]."


Internet marketers have been slow to realize that "there's been a fundamental shift. It used to be this information [a consumers age, address, income, etc.] was like air or water. It was there for the taking," said Bob Lewin, executive director at TRUSTe.


As consumers have become more concerned about the fact that Web sites are capturing their data, they have to be alerted to the fact that they are "better off" if they provide this information, said Lewin. This is because they can be better served banner ads and other online marketing messages.


Consumers are confused about privacy issues, however, and with good reason, said Larry Lozon, CEO of Privaseek. " Let consumers know what information you're collecting and how will it be used," he said.


Much of the privacy language adds to this confusion. "How many consumers understand the three-letter word 'opt'?" said Lozon. "We need to simplify the language."


In the meantime, the Federal Trade Commission has already begun to monitor how consumer's information is collected by Web sites with its Child Online Privacy Protection Act as well as the litigation it brought against sites such as Geocities.com.


The FTC appears poised to get more involved with the Net. "The FTC chairman has said we'll continue to be active [in this area]," said Dean Forbes, a member of the Federal Trade Commission's Advertising Practices Division. "Everyone should keep a watchful eye as to what their companies are doing."


This should serve as a wake-up call. "The heat is on and its on big time and its on you and me and we have to deliver," said John Kamp, senior vice president at the American Association of Advertising Agencies, Washington.


Others said government intervention is a good thing. "Self regulation hasn't worked. It's time for reasonable regulation to inspire consumer confidence," said Ray Everett Church, chief privacy officer at AllAdvantage.com.


One proactive measure companies can currently take is to launch media education campaigns, said Kamp, to express "the value of sharing information online." He also suggested Web sites appoint a privacy czar and actively participate in the development of standards that are already being shaped in Washington and in the marketplace.


The FTC's Forbes suggested if you have a privacy policy, follow it and "make it so consumers can find your privacy policy."


Nail summed up the situation by saying that privacy has always taken a backseat to other issues. "It's hard to draw attention to something that isn't a fire under [Web site owners] feet. Hopefully it doesn't have to get to that."
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