- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

A Federal Trade Commission subcommittee yesterday suggested commercial World Wide Web sites give consumers access to at least some personal data that on-line companies have about them.

A report to the FTC from the Advisory Commission on Online Access and Security is expected to fuel the debate over how much access to personal information commercial Web sites must give consumers.

Web sites long have collected information about people visiting their sites so they can monitor buying habits and tailor deals to specific customers.

But few sites divulge the information they collect about consumers.

The report is expected to help the FTC bridge the gap between businesses that are reluctant to share data with consumers and consumers who want a glimpse of the information Web sites have hoarded about them.

"Some companies regularly provide access and others have concerns about the cost of access and question the benefit," said David Medine, the FTC's associate director for financial practices.

The Advisory Committee on Online Access and Security report suggests a range of proposals the agency could use to draft a policy on access to information.

The advisory committee's most consumer-friendly proposal was a policy requiring Web sites to provide access to all information. Its most business-friendly proposal was a measure requiring commercial sites to provide access to specific information only for the sake of correcting erroneous data.

Privacy-rights advocates are pushing for a policy giving consumers full access to information from data about past purchases to Social Security numbers.

"Providing access to personal information is a wonderful way to assuage the fears and concerns of consumers," said Rob Goldman, executive vice president of www.Dash.com Inc., a New York marketer that collects information about what Web surfers buy and what sites they visit.

Dash.com has personal information in its database about nearly 1 million people, said Mr. Goldman, a member of the committee that filed the FTC report. The company already makes the information available to consumers who ask for the data.

But forcing commercial Web sites to divulge all information would place a huge burden on companies, said technology lawyer Stewart Baker, also a member of the FTC's advisory committee.

"I hope this report leads the FTC to talk about whether access is worthwhile," Mr. Baker said. "Full access is the FOIA [the Freedom of Information Act] of the private sector."

"If you want to let consumers retrieve specific information to ensure that it's correct, that's fine. But if you give access to any and all information, that becomes very expensive for companies," Mr. Baker said.

The FTC is expected to recommend Congress give it more authority to regulate the handling of consumers' personal information when it completes its annual update this month of a survey of Web sites with privacy policies.

"I think there's a consensus that protecting privacy on line is critical to the growth of e-commerce," Mr. Medine said. "But the FTC has indicated that if self-regulation isn't succeeding, they would be prepared to call for regulation."

The FTC has encouraged commercial Web sites to post their privacy policies, but is unable to require companies to post the policies.

The fear among on-line retailers is the FTC will criticize private industry's self-regulatory approach to privacy in its report this month. The FTC could ask Congress for authority to police the industry in an effort to increase the number of sites with privacy policies and the number of sites providing access to personal information, Mr. Baker said.

The FTC's call for more self-regulation has increased the number of commercial Web sites posting privacy policies. In 1998, 2 percent of Web sites posted comprehensive privacy policies, according to a survey by the FTC, and by 1999 it increased to 10 percent.

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