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US And EU Websites Fall Short Of The International Standards On Privacy

International Survey Reveals Ignorance Of Most Basic Principles Of Fair Information Use

Source: Consumers International

Posted on February 1, 2001

      Consumers International, the global federation of 263 consumer organizations, issued on January 25th the results of its comparative study of privacy protection on 751 Internet sites for consumers.

      The main findings of the study reveal that existing measures put in place by various governments to protect people's privacy is not adequate. Consumers International's research clearly shows that many European and American Internet sites aimed at consumers fall woefully short of international standards on data protection.

      In particular, the study found that:

  • Just over two thirds of sites collect some sort of personal information and almost all of these sites asked for details that made it easy to identify and contact the person. The vast majority of sites gave users no choice about being on the site's own mailing list or having their name passed on to affiliates or third parties.
  • Despite tight EU regulation, sites within the EU are no better at telling users how they use their data than sites based in the US. Indeed, some of the best privacy policies were found on US sites.
  • The most popular US sites were more likely than the EU ones to give users a choice about being on the company's mailing list or having their name passed on, despite the existence of legislation which obliges EU-based sites to provide users with a choice.
  • Only ten percent of sites targeting children asked children to get their parents' consent before giving personal information or to tell their parents afterwards. "Privacy is recognized as a fundamental human right, yet we've found that too many companies collect a lot of unnecessary, very personal information about their customers - and because of inadequate implementation of existing government measures people don't have control over their data," says Anna Fielder, Director of the Office for Developed and Transition Economies of Consumers International. "This widespread neglect of good privacy practice is all the more worrying when you consider that electronic technologies for collection of data develop so rapidly."

      Consumers International is now calling for policy makers at the national and international level to take urgent action to adopt laws, rules and procedures as necessary to ensure that:

  • users are given control over the collection, use and disclosure of their personal information and that personal information is only collected and held as long as necessary to fulfill the original purpose for collecting it
  • users can easily check, correct or delete any data a sites may hold about them and that it is collected, stored and transmitted in a secure manner appropriate to the sensitivity of the data;
  • an independent oversight body is established to ensure compliance, provide for adequate sanctions for violations and give cheap and quick access to redress

      Likewise, companies immediately need to incorporate internal practices in line with all existing legislation and guidelines regarding privacy of personal data.

      The report by Consumers International provides a five-point plan for people to protect themselves from misuse of private information in e-commerce. The five-point plan is:

  1. Limit disclosure of your personal information.
  2. Set up a separate e-mail account for e-commerce activities.
  3. Reject cookies planted in your computer by intrusive businesses.
  4. Consider using an Internet privacy tool which allows you to surf anonymously.
  5. Learn about your legal rights and be prepared to use them.

      Note: The survey, conducted between March and July 2000 by 13 national consumer organizations, identified and examined 751 Internet sites based in the EU or US where consumers were likely to be asked to give personal information. This included retail sites, financial sites, health-related sites, sites targeting children and the most popular or heavily used sites on the web.

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