WASHINGTON -- People seeking to protect their privacy can complete a single Web form to keep major advertising companies from collecting data about their Internet browsing and shopping habits.
Under pressure to protect privacy better, the advertising industry has set up two new Web sites that let computer users refuse to have their personal data collected and profiled when they visit popular commercial Internet sites.
In the past, users typically would have had to visit each Web site individually and "opt out" of the profiling, a growing practice that has been criticized by privacy advocates and some lawmakers.
"These two new consumer tools illustrate that NAI is committed to addressing users' privacy concerns," said Jeff Connaughton, spokesman for the Network Advertising Initiative, an advertisers trade group.
Typically, visitors to Web sites such as search engine Altavista or bookseller Amazon.com will have information about them, such as the kinds of topics they search for, added to their profiles. The networks also know what ads are shown to an individual, and more important, what ads that person clicks on. Then they can learn what products might interest a computer user.
Critics contend the databases infringe on people's rights, since they are largely kept under wraps and Web users can't see or correct their information. At least one ad network, Real Media, does not believe in profiling.
The NAI was created by the top ad networks to oppose legislation in Congress aimed at making opt-out automatic, requiring consumers to make an affirmative choice to be profiled. Members of NAI argue that the information is valuable to electronic commerce and prefer self-regulation.
Andrew Shen of the Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center was skeptical about the site.
"It doesn't necessarily improve the situation at all," Shen said. "Most Internet users still don't realize that such third party profiling even exists. They're so invisible to the average Internet user that opt-out really isn't enough."
On the Net:
Network Advertising Initiative: http://www.networkadvertising.org
Andersen Compliance site: http://www.andersencompliance.com