Group OKs Web Site Privacy System

By: Anick Jesdanun, AP Internet Writer

(AP) A system for quickly telling Internet users how well a Web site honors their personal privacy won final approval Tuesday from the Web’s main standards organization.

The decision by the World Wide Web Consortium seeks to address growing concerns about how e-commerce sites use e-mail addresses, shopping preferences, and other personal data they collect.

The system, known as the Platform for Privacy Preferences, or P3P, is akin to nutrition labels on food products, except the information about data privacy can be automatically read by computer software.

“P3P will give users a better understanding about the privacy relationships they choose to enter into or choose to avoid,” said Danny Weitzner, head of the Web consortium’s technology and society group. “It will help them make choices without having to read through screen after screen of privacy policy.”

Users tell the software how much data collection and sharing they are willing to tolerate. The software then checks the machine-readable privacy policies attached to Web sites as hidden tags. The software can warn users when there isn’t a match.

The P3P standards approved Tuesday represent the building blocks for software developers and Web sites to use.

Already, Microsoft Corp. has included a limited form of P3P in its latest browser, Internet Explorer 6. AT&T is distributing a free tool that can do more, but requires a download and installation.

The system is voluntary, and its usefulness will ultimately depend on how many sites embrace it.

According to the Internet Education Foundation, more than 40% of the top 100 Web sites already have or plan to apply P3P labels. But others remain unconvinced, waiting to see what their competitors do.

Regardless of whether a site uses P3P, the system won’t prevent sites from collecting data or sharing the information with marketers, nor would it let users negotiate with sites on how information gets used. Just like nutrition labels, P3P is all about disclosure, and users can either take it or leave it once they find out.

Some privacy advocates have actively campaigned against P3P, calling it “Pretty Poor Privacy.” They complained P3P will do nothing to protect users’ privacy and may make it more difficult to win passage of privacy-protection legislation.

The decision is the culmination of nearly five years of work at the World Wide Web Consortium, which had to battle a patent dispute, make the technology work, and define the privacy terms well enough to reflect conflicting legal and privacy environments around the world.

The announcement was timed to the annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference, which started Tuesday in San Francisco.

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