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Study: Big sites improving privacy

Large Web sites are collecting less data and using fewer tracking devices. But the changes are more an evolution than a revolution, one of the study's authors says.

Large Web sites are getting better about respecting consumers' privacy online, collecting less data, using fewer tracking devices, and posting more information about their practices, according to a report issued Wednesday.

The Progress & Freedom Foundation, which studies digital technologies and their implications for public policy, had accounting firm Ernst & Young begin surveying the Web pages of the top 100 e-commerce sites, plus a random sample of approximately 300 smaller sites, in December. The Federal Trade Commission and Georgetown University conducted similar "Web sweeps" in 2000, 1999 and 1998.

"The privacy practices and polices of commercial Web sites are continuing to evolve, and, by at least some criteria, to improve," according to the study. "Notably, some of the most significant changes are in the areas that have been identified as raising the greatest concerns for consumers."

Among the key findings:

• Web sites are collecting less data. The study found that the proportion of sites collecting information beyond e-mail dropped from 96 percent to 84 percent among the most popular sites.

• Cookie use is down. Slightly less than half of the most popular Web sites now use cookies, small data files that can be used to store passwords and track data about a browser user. That's down from 78 percent in the last study.

• Almost all of the most popular Web sites post privacy information, findings that are similar to the 2000 study. But the data posted "tended to provide more information and were more likely to be accessible from a site's home page," the study found.

• "Opt in" is now beating out "opt out." Thirty-two percent of the most popular Web sites now ask visitors to opt in if they want to permit their data to be used by third parties, up from 15 percent in the 2000 study. The percentage of popular sites that require people to actively opt out of third-party deals has dropped from 49 percent to 30 percent. However, in a random sample of Web sites, opt out remained the majority policy, although it dropped from 59 percent to 53 percent.

"The changes we have identified are evolutionary, not revolutionary," said PFF President Jeffrey A. Eisenach, a co-author of the report. "But from a consumer perspective, they are all in the right direction."