- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 17, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) A system for quickly telling Internet users how strictly a Web site honors their privacy won final approval yesterday from the Web's main standards organization.
The decision by the World Wide Web Consortium seeks to address growing concerns about how electronic-commerce sites use e-mail addresses, shopping preferences and other personal data they collect.
The system, known as the Platform for Privacy Preferences, or P3P, is akin to nutrition labels on food products, except the information about data privacy can be automatically read by software.
"P3P will give users a better understanding about the privacy relationships they choose to enter into or choose to avoid," said Danny Weitzner, head of the Web consortium's technology group. "It will help them make choices without having to read through screen after screen of privacy policy."
Users tell the software how much data collection and sharing they are willing to tolerate. The software then checks the machine-readable privacy policies attached to Web sites as hidden tags. The software can warn users when there isn't a match.
The P3P standards approved yesterday represent the building blocks for software developers and Web sites to use.
Already, Microsoft has included a limited form of P3P in its latest browser, Internet Explorer 6. AT&T; is distributing a free tool that can do more, but requires download and installation.
The system is voluntary, and its usefulness will ultimately depend on how many sites embrace it.
According to the Internet Education Foundation, more than 40 percent of the top 100 Web sites already have or plan to apply P3P labels. Others remain unconvinced, waiting to see what their competitors do.
Regardless of whether a site uses P3P, the system won't prevent sites from collecting data or sharing the information with marketers, nor would it let users negotiate with sites on how information gets used.
Just like nutrition labels, P3P is all about disclosure, and users can either take it or leave it once they find out.
Some privacy advocates have actively campaigned against P3P, calling it "Pretty Poor Privacy." They complained P3P will do nothing to protect users' privacy and may make it more difficult to win passage of privacy-protection legislation.
Jason Catlett, president of the Junkbusters Corp. privacy organization, worries that some Internet users may mistakenly assume the privacy label "represents an accepted and approved level of conduct."
"It's nothing of that sort," he said. "There are some things companies should not do with information without the explicit consent of the person concerned, and merely being upfront about it isn't enough."

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