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Privacy advocates question OPS

Privacy experts aren't so sure about the Open Profiling Standard backed by Netscape and Microsoft.

WASHINGTON--Skepticism is growing about a new privacy standard announced two weeks ago by Netscape Communications' (NSCP) and endorsed today by Microsoft (MSFT).

Netscape is working on the Open Profiling Standard with Internet tools maker Firefly Network and certificate authority VeriSign.

OPS would let users store personal data on their PC hard drives and then decide whether to disclose that data to individual Web sites. The profile can include name, address, sex, marital status, phone number, email address, and personal hobbies or product category interests.

But privacy and consumer advocates say the standard won't work if companies don't have fair disclosure policies about information they collect and how it will be used. The technology has also been dubbed a "privacy extractor" by some, who charge the OPS actually entices consumers to give up more information.

"It's a lot of people jumping on a train that is going in the wrong direction," Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center told CNET's NEWS.COM. "OPS will take away privacy, moving in a direction of collecting and using personal information without consent."

Jean Ann Fox of the Consumer Federation of America agreed. "Technology is a tool, but it is not a fix. This is a policy decision on how to protect consumers in a new marketplace," she said during the FTC workshop today. "It's a little counterintuitive to me that you could protect privacy by giving up information."

The companies will merge their separate consumer profiling initiatives and work together through the World Wide Web Consortium to get them approved.

The proposed standard is already backed by more than 100 technology firms. Web sites that back the standard could then ask consumers for permission to pull data from the profile. People can refuse, but if they agree, then the data can also be used to make registering for sites easier.

"We all realized we had common goals and needed to work together to advance the industry and deliver a single standard," said Microsoft's David Fester, Internet Explorer product manager.

Supporters of OPS say the potential standard could boost efforts to use Internet protocols and industry self-regulation to protect consumer privacy on the Net.

The W3C is also standardizing on the Platform for Privacy Preferences, which lets computer users pick what type of information they want to give up and sends them a warning when a site's privacy policy conflicts with their preference. The initiative also seeks agreement on rules about collecting, using, and disclosing personal information and gives special attention to child privacy issues.

If a site's practices and the user's preferences differ, the user is notified and is offered other access options. As with the PICS content effort, P3 lets users apply recommended privacy settings established by industry associations and consumer advocacy groups.

Still, both P3 and OPS depend on companies voluntarily complying, experts testified before the FTC.

"Unless we have some sort of baseline standards out there, it's not really meaningful. That's where I think there can be a role for government," said Eric Wenger, assistant attorney general for New York's Department of Law, who sits on a subcommittee on consumer privacy for the National Association of Attorneys General.

Even ardent backers of self-regulation don't think they will head off all government regulations. "Our goal is to do as much as we can in terms of technology to minimize the need for legislation, but I suspect there will be some need for regulation," Netscape's Martin Haeberly said.

Courtney Macavinta is reporting from the Federal Trade Commission hearings in Washington. Tim Clark is reporting from California.