Web privacy policies confuse Net surfers

Privacy policies that explain a company's Web surveillance habits have done little to dispel confusion among Internet users about how they are tracked online, according to a new report.

Privacy policies that explain a company's Web surveillance habits have done little to dispel confusion among Internet users about how they are tracked online, according to a report released Wednesday.

The dense, legalistic documents that many commercial Web sites post to explain their data-collection habits are more likely to provide false reassurance than clarity to Web surfers, the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg Public Policy Center found.

Prompted by privacy concerns and the threat of national legislation, most top Web sites now contain prominent links to privacy policies that explain how visitors are tracked and what is done with e-mail addresses, names and other personal information they provide.

But while the disclosures may provide a measure of legal protection for the Web sites in question, they often end up misleading or confusing visitors, the report found.

More than half of the 1,200 adults surveyed for the report wrongly believed that the mere presence of a privacy policy meant that that the Web site would not sell or trade personal information about them.

Although many Web sites provide free content to visitors who provide their names, e-mail addresses and other personal information, 85 percent said they would rather pay a fee for anonymous access or get that information offline.

"People have no clue as to what goes on behind their screens," said Joseph Turow, the Annenberg professor who wrote the report.

Turow recommended that Web sites be required to translate their privacy policies into a machine-readable code called P3P that would allow users to automatically steer away from sites that they would find too invasive. P3P was introduced more than a year ago but has not been widely adopted.

Web sites should also be required to disclose in plain language what they know about their visitors, what they have done with that information, and what they plan to learn about them, he said.

Story Copyright  © 2003 Reuters Limited.  All rights reserved.

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