Clinton: Protect Online Privacy or Feds Will

Speaking at a forum held by the Aspen Institute in San Jose, California, U.S. President Bill Clinton sternly warned high-tech industry leaders Friday that they must quickly adopt minimum privacy standards or have the government do it for them.

“There are two [areas] which are absolutely vital to keep the information economy and all America growing strong,” Clinton reportedly said. “The first is Internet security and privacy and the second is closing the digital divide.”

Clinton continued, “Today, I think we must ask ourselves, and everyone in this area, do you have privacy policies you can be proud of? Do you have a privacy policy you’d be glad to have reported in the media?”

DoubleClick Fuels Regulatory Fires

Clinton’s hard line came just one day after controversial Internet advertising firm DoubleClick, Inc. reportedly caved in to pressure from consumer groups, U.S. states and advertisers to stop tracking individuals by name over the Internet.

In a widely-reported mea culpa, DoubleClick Chief Executive Kevin O’Connor said in a statement, “We commit today, that until there is agreement between government and industry on privacy standards, we will not link personally identifiable information to anonymous user activity across Web sites.”

O’Connor admitted that he had “made a mistake by planning to merge names with anonymous user activity across Web sites,” but emphasized that the company had never implemented the plan.

Self Serving Move

Many observers believe that DoubleClick’s move is nothing more than an effort to deflect attention away from the controversy — so that it can go back to surreptitiously putting cookies on users’ computers without their knowledge.

Left to its own devices, these observers feel, the company will continue to use cookies to track users while they surf the Net for the purpose of tailoring advertising toward these users’ surfing patterns.

Michigan Uncovers Key Privacy Issue

While the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the New York State Attorney General’s office are just investigating DoubleClick, the State of Michigan’s Attorney General’s office has filed suit to prevent DoubleClick from placing its cookies on Michigan consumers’ computers without their permission.

Michigan’s position is as follows: A company that is known to the consumer has the right to place a cookie on the user’s computer without direct permission. However, when the placement is unknown to the user — such as in the case of DoubleClick — the company has no such right without permission.

Depending upon how firmly Michigan stands on its position, the issue of whether companies have the right to place cookies and track users on he Internet without users agreeing in advance to such tracking could soon become a key issue in the growing privacy debate. tailoring advertising toward these users’ surfing patterns.

A Big Deal

While Clinton did not mention DoubleClick by name at Friday’s meeting, he did tell executives that a growing percentage of the U.S. public believes that e-commerce has been stepping over the boundaries of propriety.

“This is a big deal to people,” Clinton reportedly told the group. “They are really concerned about this. They are afraid they will have no place to hide.”

Clinton continued, “I would argue again that the continuing success of the phenomenal enterprise, which has no parallel in history, requires us to seriously take into account that core of what makes America a unique place, that freedom, requires a certain space of privacy.”

Clinton added that some subjects are so sensitive that federal privacy laws are needed and inevitable.

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