A Year Ago: FTC will back online privacy groups

First published: Fri, 08 Oct 1999 09:32:46 GMT

Privacy complaint investigations to be accelerated in the US

The Federal Trade Commission said it plans to fast-track online privacy complaints that are referred to it by organizations such as TRUSTe.

An FTC representative at Internet World in New York said complaints sent by organisations that dole out privacy seals -- including TRUSTe and BBBOnLine -- would be sent immediately to investigators rather that going through the general complaint process.

David Medine, associate director for financial practices at the FTC's bureau of consumer protection, said the policy would give more clout to the group's seals of approval as more and more consumers become aware of Web-related privacy concerns. He also said it would help the enforcement of privacy policies. "It's great for companies to say they're going to do the right thing," Medine said. "The question is, are they doing the right thing?"

Medine made the announcement during a panel on online privacy during Internet World in New York. Other panelists, including former Federal Trade Commissioner Christine Varney, urged companies to post clear privacy policies that disclose how they plan to use information, give users a choice in how their information is used and give visitors a method of resolving possible privacy violations.

Varney said failing to inform users how their information is used can be a public relations nightmare, citing the recent case of Geocities, which was accused of illegally disclosing personal information last year and eventually settled with the FTC. "People have a right to know what information you collect about them and what you do with it," she said.

The panelists also said the industry should continue to regulate itself if it wants to stave off state and federal regulation. On Wednesday, the House passed a bill that cuts off federal highway funds from any state that sells your image -- a response to the sale of DMV pictures in some states. The Senate still has to consider the legislation.

But Varney doubts sweeping privacy restrictions on companies will hit the books anytime soon. "Without a specific catastrophe, I'd say it's unlikely you'll see specific broad-based privacy legislation," she said. The next big issue, she and other panelists said, would be consumer access to information -- or how much of the information collected about them should people be able to see, and change?

The panelists also noted that Europe has much stricter privacy protection laws than the United States, and U.S. firms interested in becoming global companies must consider posting policies if they want to do business there. "There's an economic reason to want to do this," Steve Lucas, chief information officer of Privaseek, said.

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