Consumer group: Online privacy protections fall short

Despite growing concern on the part of Internet users and increased government regulation, many Web sites around the world still fall well short of providing minimal data privacy protections to consumers, according to a report released today by London-based Consumers International.

But in a surprise finding, the group said it found that U.S.-based companies in general are doing a better job than their overseas counterparts when it comes to safeguarding personal information, despite tough online privacy regulations that have been passed by the European Union. For example, just 9 percent of the European Web sites that the group studied ask for permission to sell data that they collect from visitors, while half do so in the U.S.

Consumers International, a federation of 263 consumer organizations in various countries, compared the privacy policies of 741 Internet sites — about half of which are located in the U.S. On the whole, the group claimed that its research “clearly shows that many European and American Internet sites aimed at consumers fall woefully short of international standards on data protection.”

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington, said the Consumers International study “underscores the need to improve privacy protection on both sides of the Atlantic.” But he challenged the group’s finding that U.S. companies are outperforming European ones in any meaningful way.

Under the European Union’s regulations, sharing many types of data with other companies is “simply . . . not permitted, so the protection is built into law,” Rotenberg said. As a result, he added, posting a notice seeking permission for selling information to a third party may not be necessary for many European companies.

The release of the Consumers International report comes as the push for some type of online privacy legislation is heating up in the U.S. Two key members of Congress said last Friday that they expect a privacy bill to be approved this year, and a proposed piece of legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives two days ago.

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