Click on Web Privacy

When the giant search engine Google recently announced a free online service that allows users to build their own homepage, it caused barely an electronic ripple.

Deja vu reigns when it comes to new software on the Internet. Regular Web users, i.e., more than 135 million in the US, expect a steady stream of new ways to access information, especially from such major Internet portals as Google, Yahoo, AOL, and MSN.

But there's a danger in this expectation. Identity theft for one, and credit card fraud for another, are rising. Combating them effectively remains a work in progress.

For-profit websites that offer "free" services like e-mail, a search engine, and Web hosting, get something in return. That something is often individual information - name, e-mail address, physical address - that can be sold or marketed to an advertiser.

But there are far too many ways unscrupulous individuals will use the Web to gain an advantage. While Google and other major portals have privacy policies, individuals should always assume their data can at some point be sold to other businesses that don't have the same standards.

California requires that if identifying information is collected, that fact must be "conspicuously" disclosed, as well as information on third parties with whom that data might be shared. Posting these policies in understandable language should be the norm.

High-traffic websites, before and after making upgrades, should exceed the California requirement since these are the websites likely to get the most unsophisticated surfers. Few people buy a high-tech auto expecting to know what's going on under the hood. They just expect it to run safely. When it comes to user privacy, that should be a standard the Web portal industry constantly improves as well.

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