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Source: The Globe and Mail

Posted on December 11, 2000

      Half of Canadian commercial Web sites do not have a privacy policy, and most that do exist are woefully inadequate, a survey has found.

      Time is running out because most Canadian sites will have to answer to a new federal privacy law that comes into force in less than a month said Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who conducted the study.

      "Its surprising so many of them have ignored privacy," he said, adding that some firms have implemented or improved their policies since the study was completed in late September.

      And he said he was surprised that so many organizations have not yet recognized the importance of their on-line customers.

      "One of the major reasons why Canadians have not embraced e-commerce is because of their concern with on-line privacy," he said.

      It is unbelievable so many Canadian sites still don't get this."

      He added that if sites do not adequately protect personal information, "users will vote with their mouse and move on."

      The Canadian E-Commerce and Privacy study also found that 26 per cent of sites use cookies - which keep track of a computer's unique Internet address and information on what Web pages a user looks at and for how long - but do not reveal that to users. Over half of the sites do not provide contact information, and more than six out of 10 do not allow users to access information they have already submitted.

      Prof. Geist said some sites ask for basic information, such as a person's e-mail address, but others collect "significant personal data," including age, salary, number and age of children and address.

      He found that 40 per cent of the 259 sites, surveyed between May and September, do not indicate whether or not they share the information they collect with a third party.

      Richard Rosenberg, vice-president of the privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Canada, said it's likely some organizations are sharing their data with third parties.

      He cited the recent example of Toysmart, a U.S. - based on-line toy company that filed for bankruptcy protection in June, which proposed to sell off its customer list and information, even though its privacy policy assured users it would never do such a thing.

      "There is this notion that the Internet is resistant to the law. Companies in Canada and the United States seem to have this wait-and-see approach, "said Mr. Rosenberg, a professor in the computer science department at the University of British Columbia.

      But that can't last, at least in Canada.

      In less than one month, a new law - the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act - comes into force requiring that all federally regulated organizations, in areas such as telecommunications, broadcasting and banking, adopt a privacy policy.

      The long awaited legislation requires, among other things, that individuals be informed of the existence, use and disclosure of their personal information, and that they have access to that information.

      Prof. Geist said most Web sites in Canada would be affected by the law even before Jan. 1, 2004, when all companies will be covered by it or a provincial equivalent.

      Provinces can draft their own privacy law, which Quebec has already done and British Columbia is seriously considering, or they can adopt the federal version.

      The law, which will be enforced by the Canadian Privacy Commission, helps Canada meet new data protection standards set by the European Union.

      The United States has no such legislation or a privacy commissioner; however, Prof. Geist says Canada is still worse off than its southern neighbour.

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