THE Federal Trade Commission acted prudently when it asked Congress for greater authority to safeguard consumer privacy on the Internet. Companies doing business on the Net have been urged to adopt voluntary privacy standards - and many have - but the FTC found compliance with such standards far from universal.
Critics of the agency say this move is the first step on a slippery regulatory slope that could stifle booming e-commerce. Their concerns are valid, if overstated.
For one thing, the dangers of unbridled personal data collection on the Web are significant. Vast amounts of information are being amassed and used to target online advertising. That may at present only be an irritant to some Web users, but what about the possibility of personal data being mined for other purposes - perhaps by insurers, or even con artists?
People need to know what data is being gathered about them and have a say in how it's used. Voluntary standards by e-commerce companies should be encouraged by a government standard - as even some companies admit. But the regulatory hand should not be so heavy as to hinder the Web's benefits. The FTC chairman says the agency's role would be to back up and strengthen steps already taken by the industry.
In fact, it's not likely the FTC's request will go anywhere this election year. Politicians are vying for the support of Internet businesses. But even the hint of FTC action gives Internet privacy the prominence it deserves.
Rapid advances in both digital and genetic technology have posed difficult and urgent privacy issues that society needs to sort out quickly. The data collected by e-commerce firms is only one facet. E-mail, chat-room conversations, digital TV watching habits - all are trackable and retrievable. Computer hard drives, especially those wired to the Net, are easily accessible repositories of personal information. Building some reasonable fences for privacy will depend, first, on individual care in using the technology. Business ethics will have a key role. And government should at least be an active participant.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society