Does the World Wide Web, like the Wild West it's often compared to, carry the seeds of its own taming? The vast expansion of e-commerce, with virtually every kind of product finding an Internet outlet, inevitably generates calls for the civilizing influence of rules and laws.
And nothing amplifies those calls more than privacy concerns. Online technology opens unprecedented opportunities to gather, share, or sell personal information about millions of people.
What could be at stake for most people is a sharp erosion of privacy as financial records, medical histories, or buying habits get dispersed through cyberspace. The ability to know what information has been collected, and to challenge its accuracy, could get lost in the dust as e-commerce zooms ahead.
How to avert that? One obvious answer is government regulation. But as writer Tom Regan pointed out in the Monitor's Ideas section last Thursday, the barriers to government action are considerable. First, many Web users don't want official monitoring of the information flow. Second, the medium is simply too vast and borderless to effectively patrol.
Still, government could play a role by establishing some basic rights consumers ought to have online. People should know when personal information is being gathered, for instance. They should be able to check it for accuracy, and they should be able to opt out of any data collection if they choose. Proposals exist in Congress along these lines.
This should undergird a second, perhaps more effective approach to privacy protection: self-policing by e-commerce firms. Last year, some of the biggest players in Internet commerce - American Online, Microsoft, IBM, among them - formed a group called the Privacy Alliance. It has drawn up industry standards - such as notifying consumers if data are being gathered about them - and hopes to get as many Web businesses as possible to sign on and honor them. Those who don't could be subject to advertising boycotts by the major companies backing the alliance.
The third approach to privacy is probably the most basic, and ultimately most effective: Web users' own vigilance. They can take advantage of the online Consumer Reports site (www.consumerreports.org) to assess the legitimacy of e-businesses. They can be alert to Web sites' notification of privacy policies. And, increasingly, they should have access to new software products that can instantly survey such policies, thus giving advance warning of sites that provide no privacy protection.
The goal, just over the horizon, is a Web where imaginative entrepreneurs can still roam - even as online consumers are provided some assurance that data they'd rather keep private aren't rustled.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society