Privacy protection - or fox in the hen house

In a move designed to head off US government attempts to legislate privacy protection for Internet users, a group of 26 companies has created an international industry advocacy group. Called the Personalization Consortium and announced during the Spring Internet World in Los Angeles, the group is composed of dotcom and brick-and-mortar businesses.

The group describes itself as "an advocacy group formed by businesses to promote the responsible and beneficial use of technology for personalizing consumer and business relationships."

Personalization allows companies to tailor content and advertising to individual users based on information gathered about them. The consortium is made up of companies that either provide personalization services or rely heavily on them to conduct business.

The personalization industry has been taking a terrible pounding in the news media about the way it gathers and uses information from Internet users. The group wants to head off more trouble by "educating" users - and politicians - about the real benefits of personalization. But a key part of its mission, the group says, is to create a legitimate, verifiable method of protecting people's online information.

"For the personalization movement to succeed - and it is a movement - we know we need to have the trust of the public, the press, and the government," says Don Peppers, co-chair of the group.

"In my experience as a member of the Federal Trade Commission online committee, we're seeing that without independent verification, privacy policies just aren't working," adds Larry Ponemon of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, who describes himself as a "privacy" geek. "Consumers need to understand the benefits of personalization, while on the other hand, they need straightforward, accurate information so that they can assess the risks of giving personal information."

One bump in the road, however, may be the new group's future relationship with privacy organizations like the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) or The Berkman Center for the Internet & Society at the Harvard University Law School.

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of EPIC, calls the group a "profiling cartel" and dismisses the whole effort as little more than a public relations move.

"It's a familiar song and dance," he says. "They just want an industry-created program to avoid having to deal with real meaningful legislation. It's just public relations and not a real commitment to privacy."

Mr. Rotenberg also dismissed the group's plan to seek audited verification of privacy policies. "Are the chickens in the hen house going to feel better because the fox has hired PriceWaterhouseCoopers? I don't think so."

Will it work? It depends. If people like Mr. Poneman of PriceWaterhouseCoopers (who demonstrated a real commitment to privacy during the conference) have a strong voice in the group, it could be a step in the right direction.

But the danger is that the companies involved will only see this as a way to get the news media off their backs and do as little privacy protection as possible in order not to interfere with the personalization gravy train.

*E-mail Tom Regan at csmbandwidth@aol.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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