Consumers will be key to controlling privacy

As the debate over how to regulate online privacy continues to rage, some experts say consumers ultimately will have the most control about how companies use their personal information.

          As the debate over how to regulate online privacy continues to rage, some experts say consumers ultimately will have the most control about how companies use their personal information.

          Speaking at a panel discussion on online privacy as part of Computerworld US' Honours Programme, experts said businesses that build trusting relationships with customers will be the ones that will survive in the competitive world of e-commerce.

          "[Businesses] must assure people that their data is safe," says Stratton Sclavos, CEO and president of VeriSign in Mountain View, California.

          And companies must let people know what's happening with their data, says Daniel Weitzner, domain leader of the World Wide Web Consortium's P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences) Project.

          "Privacy is about not being surprised ... People can't control what happens with that data, but what's important is that they know what's happening with it, so they can choose the businesses that treat them well and not choose companies that don't treat them well," Weitzner says. "This will happen over a long period of time -- maybe a generation. What's important is the transparency, because that process can never happen if people don't know what they're choosing."

          Panelists say that although brick-and-mortar retailers have been invading people's privacy for years by using direct-mail advertising and other methods to reach customers, the newness of the internet coupled with consumers' lack of comfort and familiarity with cyberspace have created an atmosphere of distrust around it. Some said that that distrust is beginning to spill over into the offline world.

          Weitzner points to the controversy surrounding the questions on the long form of the US Census Bureau's latest survey. "This has never happened before," he says , adding that consumers are more aware of data collection in general because of their experiences with the internet.

          Ray Lane, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a venture capital firm in Menlo Park, California, however, says he isn't so sure the internet is to blame for off-line concerns about privacy. He also made reference to the Census Bureau's long form survey to bolster his point.

          "Don't you think it comes from being asked questions you were never asked before?" asks Lane, formerly president and chief operating officer of Oracle. "If you ask me for my name and credit card number I'll give it [because I'm used to that], but if you ask me how many toilets I have, I want to know why."

          Members of the panel said the trend in the US is more toward industry and consumer regulation, rather than the strict government controls found in Europe. US companies doing business in Europe are encouraged to sign a safe harbour agreement, a self-regulatory measure that provides a framework to legally and ethically move data between the two marketplaces. Negotiated between the US Department of Commerce under the Clinton administration, and the European Commission, the pact also promises US companies legal protection from Europe's stringent privacy laws.

          "In Europe, [governments] are saying how [the online privacy of citizens] should be protected," Weitzner says. "And they are saying if companies want to do business in Europe then they have to adhere to European privacy protections. But the citizens should have a greater say in protecting themselves."

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