matters of personal privacy, or is government oversight and regulation mandatory? This question was hotly debated at a two-day conference this week in Washington sponsored by Privacy and American Business, a newsletter published by the nonprofit Center for Social and Legal Research, based in Hackensack, N.J. Business executives, primarily in the financial services industry, listened warily as a parade of legislators and government officials sought to convince them that government intervention was not inevitable. The conference provided a forum for discussions on how consumers' privacy should be managed as new technologies replace traditional direct- marketing methods, allowing companies to capture and use more personal information. Christine A. Varney, a commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, tried to allay fears that the government intends to regulate on-line commerce and other electronic activities. "I have no interest in running your businesses or making your life miserable," she said. "Business and government should be partners. I am a strong believer in self-regulation." The commissioner was warmly received with hearty applause by an audience filled with attorneys, representatives from the three credit bureaus, banks, credit card lenders, and direct marketers. Though Ms. Varney spoke of "open dialogue" and "partnership" between the FTC and the business community, she also emphasized that companies with access to personal data have an obligation to disclose to consumers how the data about them are used, stored, and protected. "Accurate and timely disclosure is the answer," she said. However, her comments left some people wondering how the FTC defines "timely disclosure," and how far users of personal information must go in explaining how they use it. The FTC may answer some of those questions next spring. That is when it plans to release an expanded version of the broad privacy principles, which the Privacy Working Group of the White House's Information Infrastructure Task Force issued in June. In the meantime, the FTC has invited the public to submit comments on privacy matters. After Ms. Varney's presentation, it was not clear if the business community was convinced that the FTC is going to implement regulations. But one thing is clear, said Martin E. Abrams, director of privacy and consumer policy for TRW Information Systems and Services. "The FTC intends to be the arbiter on privacy matters." *** Summarizing the results of a consumer privacy survey presented at the conference, Alan F. Westin, editor and publisher of Privacy and American Business, said that though an increasing majority of people are concerned about threats to their personal privacy, "Americans are not hostile to businesses using their information." The survey, sponsored by the Atlanta-based credit bureau Equifax Inc. and conducted by Louis Harris & Associates in conjunction with the newsletter, found that 80% of the public feels that consumers have lost all control over how personal information about them is circulated and used by companies - up from 71% in 1990 when the question was first asked. Mr. Westin believes that privacy policies are becoming a competitive opportunity for companies. Citing an AT&T advertisement that boasts, "We don't need to know the names of your friends and family to give you a discount," Mr. Westin said privacy is becoming an important factor in how consumers select services. The AT&T ad is aimed at MCI's "Friends and Family" advertising slogan. *** Asking about credit-repair companies for the first time, the survey found that 20% of the public is aware that the major credit reporting companies have services designed to help consumers with their credit files, while 38% of the public is aware of credit-repair service companies that claim to be able to remove derogatory information from consumers' credit files. Credit-repair companies are a major concern of the FTC and the credit bureaus, which are inundated by calls from these companies attempting to alter credit reports, said John A. Ford, vice president, privacy and external affairs for Equifax. Some credit-repair companies promise to remove negative information that is accurate, he asserted. The FTC is working closely with the credit bureaus to examine these companies' business practices, said David Medine, an FTC attorney.
*** At least two privacy experts, George B. Trubow, a professor of law at the John Marshall Law School of Chicago, and Joseph Coates, president of Coates & Jarratt Inc., a futuristic research firm, raised an issue that many at the conference did not want to hear. Mr. Trubow asked whether consumers should profit monetarily when a marketer sells personal information. "The private sector pays a lot of money for this," he said, "The question is: How much of that should be shared with the data subjects?" Mr. Trubow said he believes that in the near future consumers will be compensated when their names are sold - but he was in the minority. "In this current environment, I don't see that happening," said Robert Belair, editor of Privacy and American Business. Though, he said in the "long-run people will get some piece of that pie."