The Evolving Technologies Of Internet Privacy

Policy Backgrounders | Privacy

No. 156
Friday, April 27, 2001
by Gregory F. Rehmke

Developing Privacy Standards

Technologies evolve in unexpected directions. Personal computers connected to networks of computers form an Internet that speeds information flows. But unlike newspaper, radio and television technology, Internet technology is interactive and information flows in both directions.

The virtual world of cyberspace confuses our sense of privacy. When users on home computers browse through the Wal-Mart Web site, should this interaction be considered like paging through a Wal-Mart catalog at home or like walking through a Wal-Mart store down the street or in Arkansas? Is Wal-Mart sending the information into homes, or are we sending our virtual selves out into virtual shopping malls?

Table III - Seals of Approval for Privacy Policies

"Acceptable standards of behavior toward information gathered in commerce are developing, and will likely evolve over time."

Either way, the interaction is voluntary. We are welcomed as we enter the virtual Wal-Mart, or we invite an interactive Wal-Mart catalog into our home and onto our desktop. The information generated by this voluntary interaction is obviously available to both parties. We can tell others what we saw on display in the online Wal-Mart, and Wal-Mart can study what we looked at - what products and displays we lingered over, what pathways we took while clicking through their store.

What are acceptable standards of behavior toward private information gathered in commerce? These standards are developing according to what people consider just, fair and efficient. And these marketplace standards will likely evolve over time.

Major privacy certification firms TRUSTe and BBBOnline [see Table III] have developed privacy standards, certify sites that promise to adhere to them and adjudicate (privately) disagreements and disputes. These standards are not settled, but the process is transparent rather than secret and bureaucratic. Some firms and organizations criticize TRUSTe, for example. The EPIC Web site describes some disagreements, and the SafeWeb site claims that the TRUSTe symbol does not guarantee visitors' privacy. (And surprise! They claim using SafeWeb does.)

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