Beyond its remarkable benefits, the Internet is delivering something that most Americans find troubling: a potential threat to personal privacy that has federal regulators and lawmakers struggling to respond.
People are discovering that companies have been busy using insidious little Internet programs called “cookies” to invade their personal computers and collect information about them - everything from the kind of machine they use to the information they view - often without their knowledge or consent.
The Internet also makes it easy for those in the data-marketing business to widely disseminate and sell private information in the form of computer databases compiled from public records like property tax rolls, court records, and telephone directories.
The Federal Trade Commission opened three days of public hearings Tuesday on what to do about the Internet’s privacy threat.
The hearings follow the recent introduction of a number of bills in Congress seeking to strengthen privacy in the computer age, including one that would ban the use of a person’s Social Security number from being used to identify their records in any database.
The FTC has been looking into the issue for nearly two years, since the first wave of Internet popularity. The reason: the international computer network, used by hundreds of millions of people, offers myriad opportunities for companies to deal in private information.
Efforts at Internet regulation are strongly opposed by businesses, which have used the days surrounding the hearings to announce various self-policing efforts they hope will stave off interference from Washington. They hope to assure the government, and the public, that a free-market approach to privacy will solve the problem by letting consumers choose to do business with companies that promise privacy.
“We ought to give self-regulation a chance to work, and if we can’t, we shouldn’t single out any one industry,” said John Ford, vice-president of privacy and external affairs for Atlanta-based Equifax, one of the nation’s largest credit-reporting agencies. “You should not use a Vise-Grip where a pair of tweezers will do.”
Privacy advocates disagree, citing a less than stellar record of corporate self-regulation when consumer privacy is concerned. Many of them want the federal government to regulate what information companies may gather about Internet users, or offer on-line to various customers, and for what purposes.
“There’s a huge problem developing over information available on the Internet,” said Evan Hendricks, publisher of the Privacy Times newsletter in Washington. “If people were aware of what (information is available), they’d be upset.”
That personal privacy is jeopardized by the volume of information recorded in modern society is not a problem that began with the Internet. For many years, police, private detectives, reporters, regulators, marketers, con artists and thieves have used public records and other easily available information sources to gather detailed information on people - for good or ill.
What has changed with the Internet is the sheer volume of information available, to almost anyone, for almost nothing.