The Internet is history's biggest data-collection machine. Web sites ask for a visitor's name, e-mail address and even income. Small programs called 'cookies' slipped on the hard disk can also trace a surfer's path through the Net. Quite apart from the ethics of such things, experts fear that consumers will buy less online if they are being watched. Nearly one in four Americans would use the Internet more if their privacy were protected, according to a recent poll, and 60 percent think legislation is needed."

From "You are Being Tailed," The Economist (June 27,1998)

Privacy is coming to the forefront of people's awareness and emerging as a major political issue. Some members of Congress and the Clinton administration are now beginning to demand placement of proper protections for the privacy of individuals. The question is whether such measures are to be voluntary or mandated by law. One of the concerns legislators have is the collection and use of personal information from children. Many Web sites collect this, either openly or secretly, through extracting personal information every time a user comes to a site. The Federal Trade Communication, in its June 4 "Report to Congress on Privacy Online," at , expressed deep concern about the violation of privacy on the Internet and, in particular, on the abuse of information collected from children. The FTC first voiced its concerns 12 months earlier. High-tech companies such as Microsoft, Netscape, IBM and many others had promised voluntary privacy codes would be put in place using policy and technological solutions. A year later, a survey by the FTC found that these voluntary practices were woefully inadequate.

Too Much Information?

The Internet has been a driving factor in raising people's concerns about privacy. The tens of millions of us around the world who use the Internet every day are well-aware of how much information is out there.

Our personal information is bandied around the technological and communication networks of the world. At any given time, highly computer-literate people, in government and segments of the private sector, can, within seconds, gather startling amounts of information about us. The issue now is what information we stick onto the World Wide Web, if any, is actually protected?

International Concerns

The transition from paper to the Digital Age has brought with it new issues for the collection, management and dissemination of information.

In the past, especially prior to the rise of the personal computer, seamless international information networks and the Internet, getting at almost any kind of information was a laborious process. Now, Internet browsers and search engines put information from around the globe at one's fingertips. Our personal information is spread out along the corridors of the world's integrated networks. It is the international availability of our personal information that is driving the call not only for national laws, but for international agreement on many Internet issues, including privacy.

As nations join together in global electronic commerce, as more countries become connected to the Internet, and as electronic commerce and electronic delivery of services become reality, it is important to look at the central question of privacy. It is also necessary to assess the differences of approach to the issues in Europe and North America. Privacy is important when dealing with electronic commerce and electronic transactions. When an individual comes online to access a service or benefit, he or she wants to know the transaction is protected from third-party observation.

Assurances are needed that the personal information is not passed on to a multitude of other divisions in the organization or to other departments in government, unless specified by law and the citizen is notified. Clear rules are needed.

The European Solution

Europeans have developed laws to handle the problem within indiv- idual nations.