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California's top cop tackles Net privacy

State Attorney General Bill Lockyer says he may step into the privacy debate if California businesses fail to adopt simple privacy policies.

REDWOOD CITY, Calif.--California Attorney General Bill Lockyer on Thursday called on the state's businesses to adopt simple privacy policies or face strict crackdowns.

Speaking before an audience at a privacy conference at the headquarters of software maker Oracle, Lockyer said businesses planning to collect personal information from consumers need to do a better job of informing people about the practice.

"It seems to me much of the debate...might have been avoided if there had been a really simple notice that someone with less than a post-graduate level of education could understand," he said.

Lockyer suggested something along the lines of a postage-paid postcard that provides a checkbox next to the words "don't use my stuff."

Privacy practices have been largely unregulated, except when it comes to health and financial information. But even federal laws regulating financial privacy have disappointed consumer-rights advocates by requiring people to wade through convoluted privacy brochures and send decisions to opt out via regular mail.

Lockyer said he's given up hope that the industry would regulate itself.

"I don't think it's going to happen," Lockyer said of attempts to self-regulate. "I don't think they can ever be adequate and sufficient in and of themselves."

Instead, the state's top cop said he would wait to see what happens with two privacy bills moving through the state legislature before considering whether to propose his own initiative. "I'm reluctant (to create a new proposal) and would prefer not to," he said.

Lockyer said that without regulation, abuse of private information could spiral out of control. Net researcher Jupiter Media Metrix has predicted that within four years, people can expect to receive an average of 1,400 pieces of junk e-mail, or spam, annually.

"We just have to figure out a way to be more sensitive to people's privacy," Lockyer said.

The conference took place a day after California gubernatorial candidate Bill Jones sent a mass e-mail to potential voters that some recipients are calling spam. Among those who received the e-mail was a Philadelphia resident who is unable to vote in California.

A representative for Jones' campaign acknowledged that e-mail was sent mistakenly to people in other states, but he balked at the spam label.

"It's not spam; it's political speech," said Sean Walsh, Bill Jones' deputy campaign manager. "Communicating politically through the Internet is a new frontier."