Privacy - opt in or opt out altogether

According to Freed, who spoke at Internet World 2000 last week, the actions of companies who use personal site visitation data to then send unsolicited email to visitors may come back to haunt those companies by repelling consumers, en masse, from the internet.

Freed's remarks at Internet World were preceded by a keynote address from DoubleClick founding CEO Kevin O'Connor.

O'Connor admitted that DoubleClick supplies web advertisers with demographic information based on cookies sent to site visitors' PCs. Personal data such as user names and addresses could be supplied to online advertisers without a user's active consent or payment, he said.

However, as O'Connor pointed out, DoubleClick offers an "opt-out" approach to privacy, whereby web users are able to request that their personal information not be used for data-gathering marketing exercises -- an approach deplored by Freed, who supports the less commercially attractive "opt-in" approach.

Of data-gathering companies such as DoubleClick, Freed said: "The risk here is that if we continue with this abuse of rights, there could be -- and probably will be -- a strong backlash against the internet and against e-commerce. Mailboxes belong to the recipient, not the person sending the mail.

"When people go to a website, that website does not have the right to extract information about them from their browser and then proceed to send them unsolicited mail."

Freed said there are currently no laws in place to sufficiently deter internet companies from abusing visitor data in this way.

"The internet is pretty laissez-faire. Whoever is the biggest and baddest and carries the most weight seems to be able to get away with what they want," he said.

Nevertheless, he said it would be unreasonable to expect governments to regulate the web, due to its non-geographic, non-jurisdictional nature.

Ultimately, he said, the web must become self-regulated.

A global awareness of newfangled online marketing tactics would generate a greater respect for user privacy issues, which would, in turn, ensure effective self-regulation, Freed explained.

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