FTC will use survey to examine privacy issues

The US Federal Trade Commission will rely on an upcoming industry-funded survey of commercial Web sites to determine whether to recommend privacy protections to Congress, FTC chairman Robert Pitofsky said on Tuesday.

Georgetown University business professor Mary Culnan will conduct a sweep of Web sites' privacy policies in March. The survey is part of an initiative funded by the Direct Marketing Association, as well as the Online Privacy Alliance, a consortium of companies supporting privacy self-regulation.

The FTC's own staff-conducted survey last year of 1400 Web sites concluded that while 92 per cent of commercial Web sites gather some personal data about visitors, only 14 per cent notify users of their practices. That study received some criticism because of its methodology and raised questions about how to conduct a random sample of Internet sites. But the survey also led to calls for laws guaranteeing privacy protection.

Pitofsky told a Media Institute luncheon that he believes industry self-regulation can work, but that he and the commissioners want to review the results of the upcoming survey. "If it turns out that we are as dismal as we were last year, Congress is going to have to act," he said.

The FTC chairman explained that the agency turned to the privately funded study because a staff study would be "too resource intensive". "It basically takes our staff out of commission for two to four weeks," he said. But Pitofsky added that he was confident in the work of Culnan, who specialises in the social and public policy impact of information technology.

The industry had criticised the 1998 FTC study for failing to sample many of the most-often-visited Web sites with established privacy policies. "The old survey wasn't very good," said John Kamp, senior vice president of the American Association of Advertising Agencies, which has been involved in attempts to convince government that self-regulation is working. "We don't want to replicate it."

Pitofsky revealed few details about the new survey, although he said it will "find out what are the privacy policies of the various sellers on the Internet". The results will probably be available in late [autumn in Australia].

Privacy advocate Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said that regardless of who conducts the survey, he doesn't believe it's relevant. "We think the question the FTC has to focus on is whether self-regulation has been effective," he said, adding that the agency's efforts would best be spent examining the adequacy of privacy protections rather than taking another survey.

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