W3C plans privacy specification

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) plans to develop specifications for protecting users' privacy when they surf the Web, consortium officials have announced.

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) plans to develop specifications for protecting users' privacy when they surf the Web, consortium officials have announced.

Under the Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3) project, the W3C hopes to develop a system that will let a Web site tell users about its data collection practices -- and a user tell a Web site about their privacy preferences -- before the user enters the Web site. A user could, for example, configure their browser with their privacy preferences. The browser could then notify the user if a site collects more information than they want to reveal.

"Other proposals have to do with putting icons on a site that a user is expected to notice, but our proposal really focuses on doing this in an automated way," says Ralph Swick, P3 project manager.

The W3C also wants to develop a specification that is flexible enough to meet privacy requirements around the world, since some countries have much stricter privacy laws than the US, Swick says.

P3 was unveiled at the US Federal Trade Commission's workshop on consumer online privacy this week in Washington DC. The FTC is holding the workshop to determine whether the US needs to pass laws to protect consumers' privacy online, or whether industry is doing enough on its own to safeguard consumers' privacy.

The industry, in general, has shied away from government intervention. But the W3C is not opposed to legislation outright, Swick says. It just wants to make sure that when any legislative action is taken, that it is done "with the knowledge of what pieces of the problem technology might be able to address".

Legislation could, for example, make sure that a Web site's professed data handling practices could be enforced as a contract between the site and the user, Swick says.

P3 could wind up being an extension of PICS (Platform for Internet Content Selection), the W3C's content labelling specification, Swick says. Privacy labelling may require a degree of back and forth negotiations between the browser and server that PICS was not initially designed to handle, he says.

Netscape, Microsoft and Firefly Network have submitted their Open Profiling Standard to the W3C, and it will be considered as the P3 specifications are developed, according to Swick. The Open Profiling Standard, announced two weeks ago, seeks to let users control how much personal information they want to disclose on the Web and offer them a standard way to do so.

Preliminary P3 specifications may be available before the end of this year, Swick says, but no timetable has been set.

The World Wide Web Consortium is on the World Wide Web at http://www.w3.org/.

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