Internet privacy - protect your online privacy

So far, most of the attention has been focused on getting sites to post privacy policies that state what information they collect and what they do with it. Both RealNetworks and Alexa have been accused of violating their own policies about keeping user information anonymous.

"Promises made in the privacy policy are as much a part of the transaction as what is delivered to the consumer," Ferrera says.

In short, Internet privacy policies offer consumers very little protection. "Six months ago, just having a privacy policy was considered pretty honourable," says Abner Germanow, a research manager at International Data Cor-poration. "Today, most policies are pretty worthless."

A Georgetown University study, conducted in the US and published in June 1999, examined 361 commercial Web sites and found that nine out of 10 ask you to supply at least one piece of personal information, such as your name, e-mail address, or postal address. Only two-thirds of the sites in the survey offered privacy statements. Less than 10 per cent had what researchers considered to be a complete policy - one that provides consumers with a statement about the site's data collection practices, an opt-out clause, access to the information collected, a description of how the site secures data, and phone numbers or e-mail addresses that consumers can use to contact the company. What's more, privacy statements can be changed at will, often without notification to users or affiliated sites.

"If you want to find out how a company feels about your personal privacy, don't look at their privacy statement, look at their business model," says Rick Jackson, CEO of Privada, a US-based maker of products that allow consumers to surf the Web anonymously. A former executive at Net Gravity, Jackson helped engineer that marketing firm's merger with DoubleClick last October, despite personal reservations about some of DoubleClick's marketing methods. The more an information-gathering company knows about you, he says, the more money it makes: "That's their business model. If it's a question of profit versus privacy, profits come first every time."

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Daniel Tynan

PC World
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