Originally created 04/10/00

Internet users trying to fight Web tracking



TORONTO -- Internet users concerned about privacy are looking to technology, education and government to ease their fears about Web sites that can track their every click.

What people want, say professors, government leaders and business executives who gathered here for a Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, is the same anonymity they get when they stroll through stores in a mall.

"People should be able to control information about themselves," said James Rule, a sociology professor at the State University of New York's Stony Brook campus. "If someone makes money from information about myself, I think I should have a say."

Rule joined about 400 Internet users at the conference here last week to exchange ideas for ensuring privacy in a medium where Web sites can easily monitor how visitors spend their time online.

In some instances, those sites automatically create profiles on consumers that include their e-mail addresses and shopping habits, from their favorite books to their clothing sizes.

Companies defend the tracking as beneficial for customers, saying it can be used to make advertisements and services more relevant to the consumer's needs.

There are even promises of Web-enabled appliances, such as refrigerators that could order groceries when stocks run low -- a concept that made Austin Hill, president of Zero-Knowledge Systems in Montreal, cringe.

"Who gets to know how much fast food I have in the fridge, or how much beer I drink?" Hill asked.

Beth Warner, an information services administrator at the University of Kansas, said companies might back off from tracking Web surfers if consumers become sufficiently outraged.

Others said stronger privacy laws are needed because industry self-regulation is inadequate. They praised last weeks' passage of a Canadian law requiring Internet companies to obtain explicit consent before sharing personal information.

The world's largest software company, Microsoft Corp., is promoting its Platform for Privacy Practices, or P3P, a standard for letting consumers choose how much they reveal. At the conference, Microsoft announced it would develop P3P tools for Web browsers this fall.

Microsoft's chief privacy officer, Richard Purcell, said many companies -- including Microsoft -- track customers to help them more easily find what they want. That practice is OK, he said, as long as consumers have a choice to decline tracking.

But sites often disclose that choice in privacy statements that are difficult to find and understand.

"The average member of the populace has no idea when they are giving up privacy," said David Loundy, a Chicago lawyer.

Conference participants warned that that in addition to cybershopping, there are concerns about identity theft and protections for health, medical and financial records.

Many Internet users avoid health sites now because of worries that insurers might learn of diseases researched and deny coverage, said Angela Choy of Georgetown University's Health Privacy Project.

Federal Trade Commission member Mozelle W. Thompson promised vigorous enforcement of existing laws, telling the conferees that several Web sites have already changed their ways as a result. But he acknowledged that the Internet brings new privacy challenges.

"E-commerce is changing the relationship between buyer and seller," he said.