Internet Privacy Stumbles Forward

SAN MATEO (07/31/2000) - Three groups -- regulators, the high-tech industry, and privacy advocates -- are clumsily defining what eventually will become accepted business practices for using consumer data. And because of the speed of change and a lack of coordination between government and business, concern over privacy abuses is swelling. If this situation continues, everyone loses because useful personalized services will never reach their potential.

Last week saw another burst of legislative and regulatory action, added to dozens of proposals already being considered. The keen interest by government officials, which may seem perplexing to marketers, underscores the growing concern among constituents over what new technologies can do with personal data garnered on the Internet.

Meanwhile, businesses accused of misusing data, or even just using data without the consumer's knowledge, are getting nailed by privacy watchdogs.

Some of this concern is not always rational: Many of the same techniques for buying and selling data have been common in the offline world for years, generating those heaps of junk mail and unsolicited phone calls at dinner time.

But such are the rules of the online game. Businesses have faced up to the fact that they cannot set privacy rules in a vacuum. The Internet is a public forum and the immaturity of the privacy regulations means that, for better or worse, the market will push the limits of what is, and what is not, acceptable.

And if privacy whistle-blowers and bureaucrats weren't enough, businesses also have their own organizations to contend with. As our story by Jennifer Jones and Bob Trott shows, multiple parties in a company must come together to formulate practices on a continual, rather than an ad hoc, basis.

Businesses need a flexible environment to combine data across various systems or business units in order to speak to their consumers with one voice. The only way that can happen in today's emotionally charged atmosphere is to work with regulators in open forums.

Is this the best way to set privacy policy for business?

Write to me at martin_lamonica@infoworld.com.

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