Technology is the source of many concerns involving personal privacy. Does it make sense to suggest that technology also can respond to those concerns?
The answer is undoubtedly yes. And a big step has been taken by the World Wide Web Consortium, a little-known group that helps set Internet standards.
The consortium recently approved a new system for informing Web users of how well various Web sites safeguard their personal privacy. The system is called the Platform for Privacy Preferences and is generally abbreviated as P3P.
In its simplest form, P3P merely codifies the privacy statements that are now routinely attached to Web sites across the Internet. The P3P system then rates each site based on the degree to which it protects the personal privacy of its users.
Web users can then set their browsers to automatically determine whether a given Web site gives them the privacy protection they demand. Users will be alerted instantly when visiting sites that don't meet that level of privacy protection.
Just standardizing and clarifying the arcane privacy policies in use on the Internet would be an important step forward. Today's system of individual statements is nearly useless to most surfers, because the privacy policies are filled with exceptions, caveats and arcane legal lingo.
But P3P also should help raise the profile of privacy on the Net. Users should find it easier than ever to get a quick idea of whether a particular site will respect privacy or is merely collecting as much personal information as it can for resale to others. Thus, considerations of privacy protection become a routine part of the surfing experience.
The P3P system is voluntary, so its ultimate usefulness to consumers will depend in part on how widely it is adopted. No privacy system, no matter how well planned, can do much good if it doesn't come into common use.
How much consumers can rely on the privacy ratings will be another key factor. The Web consortium can create a privacy rating system, but it can't be responsible for policing whether sites live up to their privacy commitments.
Some have argued that the P3P system doesn't go far enough in protecting consumer privacy on the Net. As a result, they've opposed P3P on the grounds that it will undermine support for tougher privacy laws.
But P3P has one tremendous advantage. Because it has the backing of the World Wide Web Consortium, the rating system is, in effect, being built into the structure of the Internet.
In hindsight, it might have been preferable to make privacy an essential element of the Web from the start. But it's not too late to do so now.
Privacy remains a vital concern to a huge percentage of Internet users. Yet little has been done to respond to those concerns.
Whether tougher privacy laws are needed is a separate question. But the bold move by the Web consortium to weave privacy into the fabric of the Web itself deserves support.
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