'Net Users Want Privacy Laws, Survey Says

A new survey indicates that U.S. Internet users may favor online privacy laws, but the U.S. government last week declined to endorse that approach to governing companies' online exchange of personal information.

A new survey indicates that U.S. Internet users may favor online privacy laws, but the U.S. government last week declined to endorse that approach to governing companies' online exchange of personal information.

Most respondents to the survey, conducted by the Graphic, Visualization & Usability Center at the Georgia Institute of Technology, agreed strongly (39 percent) or somewhat (33 percent) that there should be new laws to protect privacy on the Internet. Only 7 percent of respondents disagreed strongly, according to the survey.

The survey also revealed that, for the first time, the delicate balance between privacy and free expression has tipped in favor of privacy, which 30 percent of respondents identified as the most important issue facing Internet users. Censorship was tagged as the most important issue by 24 percent of respondents, the survey said.

But just as more Americans now appear willing to sacrifice some freedom for privacy protection, the U.S. government has declined to pursue legislation to that end.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week endorsed a self-regulating, rather than legislative, approach to governing the availability of personal information online. The FTC issued a report expressing satisfaction with online information companies' agreement to adhere to voluntary restrictions on how they make personal information available. [See, "FTC: No Need For New Net Privacy Laws," Dec. 18.]

The survey also revealed respondents' strong opposition to companies which sell the personal information of those who visit their Web sites. Fully 63 percent of respondents disagreed strongly with the practice, and 19 percent disagreed somewhat, the survey showed. In addition, 64 percent of respondents agreed strongly that they should have complete control over their own demographic information, the survey said.

The FTC also expressed reservations about users' current level of control of their personal information, most notably that the voluntary restrictions have no provision for making people aware of information about them or for letting them make corrections to that information. However, FTC Chairman Robert Pitofsky said in a statement that "We trust the industry will bring the same spirit of cooperation to resolving these remaining issues" as they have in agreeing to the voluntary restrictions.

But respondents may think the issue is not how, but if, companies should be permitted to use their personal information. Seventy-five percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that third-party advertising agencies should be permitted to compile usage data on them for direct marketing purposes, according to the survey.

More information about the survey can be found on the World Wide Web at http://www.epic/org/privacy/survey/.

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