Consumer groups launch Net privacy guide

A group of consumer privacy groups launched an online guide for protecting security and privacy on the Internet on Dec. 18, hoping to reach consumers making purchases online as the busy holiday shopping season comes to a close.

The Web site – – offers tips on how to read and understand the privacy policies of online retailers and other Web sites that collect information about visitors. It also offers how-to guides for getting rid of “cookies,” the small tags that Web sites leave on a user’s hard drive to track preferences and other information about that visitor the next time they return to the site.

The site is co-sponsored by five consumer groups: the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT); the National Consumers League; Consumer Action; Common Cause; Call for Action; Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. The online guide pulls information and other resources from each of the groups.

“There are a great many educational materials on the Internet already,” said Paula Bruening, staff counsel with the CDT during a conference call with the press Tuesday. “We hope that this site will be a place for practical and user-friendly information for consumers to protect their privacy.”

The site was launched to bring Internet privacy and security issues back into focus, group members said during the call. Protecting online privacy has fallen out of favour since the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. with Congress and the Bush administration giving law enforcement agencies more power to snoop on digital communication.

“The issue persists, and I agree that in the wake of Sept. 11 it may have quieted for a few months, but we’re going to see it again,” Bruening said of online privacy protection.

The timing of the launch also was intended to come as consumers wrap up the largest shopping season of the year.

“It comes just in time since we all expect a lot of e-commerce to take place during this holiday season,” said Scott Harshbarger, president of Common Cause, and former state attorney general for Massachusetts. “It tells people how to harness technology to protect their privacy.”

The group expects to add new features to the Web site, including links to tools for managing Web site privacy policies, called P3P (Platform for Privacy Preferences). With P3P, an Internet user can set the level of privacy they want from a Web site and that allows them to block access to sites that don’t meet that privacy criteria.

Microsoft Corp. is building P3P into its Internet explorer Web browsers. AT&T Corp. is also working on a beta version of a tool for managing privacy, the groups said.