Respecting online privacy

By February as many as two out of every five households in Australia will be connected to the Internet, according to the National Office for the Information Economy. Add to this the almost saturation penetration of Internet access among white-collar workers and you have the makings of a truly wired nation.

Yet there persists in Australia an almost cavalier attitude on the part of private sector Web sites to many of the rights of an Internet user.

For three days in August last year, Andersen Legal and Arthur Andersen tracked the degree to which privacy rights existed and were publicised on the top 100 Internet sites in Australia. The survey revealed a pretty woeful situation.

Only about half of the top 100 sites had a privacy policy or information practice statement posted on their Web site. Remember, these were just the top 100 sites - not the thousands of also-rans where it is probable that the situation is even worse.

More alarming still was that almost one in three of these top 100 sites said that they would disclose a user's personal information to third parties, with only a handful giving the Internet user any say in whether that information could or could not be passed on.

As the report noted in a masterful understatement, "The Australian Internet industry . . . has not fully addressed the issues of Internet privacy and security."

The Government is, at time of writing, debating its Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Bill 2000. Widely expected to be passed into law, it remains a light-touch approach to online security, which will oblige companies to develop and then conform to a privacy code of conduct offering users more transparency regarding the collection and use of their personal information.

It will remain the responsibility of the user of the Internet site to ensure they inform themselves about those privacy principles, remembering that from the moment they connect to a Web site there is the opportunity for information to be gathered and subsequently used and circulated. Some Web sites currently retain the right to use all the information and some install cookies that can track an Internet user's movements. Some sell on that information, which can prompt a deluge of approaches from other online companies.

When using an online service the Internet user is regularly obliged to click on an "I agree" or "I accept" button before proceeding, which demands the user accepts and complies with a series of conditions, and on occasion accept the privacy code of the site if such a thing is published.

Most of us click on the button with scarcely a glance at the terms and conditions to which we blithely agree. It is hard to imagine such an attitude would persist if we were presented with a document filled with fine print that we were suddenly asked to sign.

As Internet users we need to increase our level of sophistication and scepticism if our privacy is not to be abused.

Companies that conduct business with consumers online also need to improve their game. Andersen predicts that the Government's privacy laws will not come into force before July 2001, yet that still gives companies relatively little time to get their acts together regarding the drafting and implementation of a privacy code.

As Internet users become more savvy and demanding then they will want to conduct business with those companies which respect the value of their personal information, and acknowledge their rights regarding how that information is used, how accurate it is, how it is stored and whether or not it can be passed on to a third party.

Over time it is likely that a good privacy policy and a demonstrated commitment to follow that code could prove a competitive advantage for online companies. This appears to have been the case in the US, where a similar survey to that run by Andersen here found that 57 per cent of Internet users said they had resisted using a Web site because of an ill-defined or poor privacy policy.

Knowledgeable Internet users will increasingly turn to sites which respect their rights, and it would be a wise online corporation that heeds that trend.

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Beverley Head

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