Privacy Study: Legislation Out, User Control In

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Most Internet users assert that there should be rules about how Web companies track them at their sites, but they don't think the rules should take the form of federal legislation, according to a follow-up tracking poll to a study released Aug. 20 by The Pew Internet & American Life Project, Washington.


"The good news for Internet companies is that consumers are not necessarily looking for federal legislation," said Susannah Fox, principal author of the study and director of research at The Pew Internet & American Life Project.


The original study was based on the responses of 2,117 U.S. adults surveyed via random telephone polling about online privacy between May 19 and June 21. Of those surveyed, 1,017 were Internet users.


Of the people initially surveyed, 84 percent of Internet users claimed to be concerned about businesses and others obtaining their personal information, but 54 percent have willingly provided it in order to use a Web site. Another 10 percent said they would provide personal information under the right circumstances.


"People are participating less than they would if they were given some assurance," said privacy advocate Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., Green Brook, NJ.


That assurance needs to take the form of legislation, said Catlett.


More than half of the Internet users who participated in the study said tracking by Web sites is a harmful invasion of privacy.


As a result of the findings, Pew set up a two-question July-August poll to further explore attitudes about Internet tracking activities. The outcome of the additional poll was not included in the report.


When asked whether rules about Internet tracking are needed, 81 percent of Internet users said yes. When asked what entity would do the best job setting the rules, 50 percent of Internet users said Web site visitors, according to statistics provided by Fox.


The next highest figure was 24 percent of Web users who said the federal government would best set tracking rules.


"Even if consumers set the rules, you still need enforcement in the form of baseline legislation," said Ari Schwartz, policy analyst at the Center for Democracy & Technology, Washington.


Schwartz and the CDT advocate a threefold solution of legislation, better industry self-regulation including user education and better technological tools to protect consumer privacy online.


Very few Internet users surveyed for the study employ techniques to protect their privacy online. Among the precautions taken, 24 percent gave fake information at Web sites; 9 percent have used encryption to scramble e-mail; and 5 percent have used anonymizing software.


Additionally, 56 percent of Internet users did not know what an Internet cookie is. Of the 43 percent who could identify a cookie, only 10 percent had their browsers set to reject them.


This did not surprise Catlett. "If you ask people if they are concerned about their safety in the streets, they generally say yes, but [they] don't buy bulletproof vests," he said.


Despite concerns and lack of action to avoid invasions of privacy, most of the Internet users surveyed said they have not been victimized online. Fewer than 3 percent said their credit card information had been stolen online, and only 4 percent said they had ever felt threatened in some way while online.


Internet users may not know when something bad has happened to them online, and they usually don't find out until it is too late, said Schwartz.


"Trust is a central concern to the future of e-commerce," said Schwartz.


The Pew Internet & American Life Project plans to work on privacy issues throughout the year and into 2001, said Fox.
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