Internet privacy debate brewing

Fight: Although lawmakers appear supportive of new legislation, business groups won't make bills easy to pass.

January 22, 2001|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,BOSTON GLOBE

This might be the year our government finally moves to protect the privacy of Internet users. Then again, maybe not.

Despite the bitter divisions in the new Congress, there's a pleasantly bipartisan buzz of support for Internet privacy legislation. But business groups like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce will make a fight of it.

"I don't think you want to stop businesses from being able to use information that creates better products and better services for their customers," said Rick Lane, the chamber's director of e-commerce and Internet technology. "We could wind up with a situation that would do more harm than good."

Instead, Lane favors the current model of corporate self-regulation. Nearly all reputable Internet companies voluntarily publish their privacy policies; let the customer read and decide whether to share personal information.

That's not good enough, even for an economic libertarian like me. The label on a can of Green Giant creamed corn isn't voluntary; it's required by federal law. Commercial Web sites should have to label themselves, as well.

By law, food labels must be reasonably easy to understand - nothing like the eye-numbing arcana found in the typical Web privacy statements. It shouldn't be too tough to do the same thing online.

Ever notice how nearly all Web sites bury their privacy statements in small type at the bottom of the first page? Why not require all commercial sites to display the statement's key points in bold type? The law could require simple, standardized messages like those on cigarette packs. "We may sell your name and address," or "Share your personal data with others? No way!" Those who want the full, legalesey details could click on the text; the rest of us learn all we need to know at a glance.

These are the easy parts; the donnybrooks lie in the details.

For instance, should companies have the right to send you e-mail ads until you explicitly ask them not to? Some want to ban this "opt-out" technique, while others (me, for instance) think it's no big deal.

Then there are the firms that want to send Internet data to our cell phones, data that will change when we go to a different city or even a different city block. That would require them to track our every step. How should we regulate that?

Watch for the corporate lobbyists to use wedge issues like this one to undercut privacy legislation. In a Congress as angry and tense as this one, it might even work.

All the more reason for consumers to make their own privacy provisions. Software companies are serving up products that make it easier for you to keep control of your personal data, before it ever leaves your machine.

Symantec Corp.'s Norton Internet Security 2001, for Windows computers, is a beefy suite of programs aimed at defending your privacy and peace of mind. The $80 home edition has a smut filter to protect the kiddies, a firewall to fend off hackers, and good old Norton AntiVirus.

Those Internet "cookies" used by Web sites to track surfing habits could under some circumstances be used to identify the surfer. If you're paranoid about it, the Norton suite includes cookie-blocking features.

Before rushing out to buy this software, you might want to pick up most of the same features for free.

Go to www.freedom.net and download the new version of Zero-Knowledge Systems' Freedom software.

I've written about Freedom before; it's a product that assigns the user a "nym," a nom de surf that will let you send e-mail and visit Web sites without revealing your true identity. The user gets five nyms for $50 a year.

Wait a minute; what happened to "free?"

Well, Zero-Knowledge wanted to distribute Freedom through Internet service providers, but they said customers wouldn't touch it unless there were some freebies attached.

And now there are: cookie blocking, a sensitive-data interceptor, a firewall, even a nifty feature that will automatically fill out Web page forms, using made-up nonsense instead of your real name. All for free, in hopes you'll become a hardcore privacy fanatic, and subscribe to Freedom's commercial service.

To the Chamber of Commerce, Norton Internet Security 2001 and Freedom might prove that the free market can protect the privacy of Internet users. That's fine, if you think consumers should pay to be left alone. And at least for now, you might have to.

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