Commerce Secretary William M. Daley called on corporate America to speed up development of policies to protect consumers' privacy on the Internet.
Emerging from a meeting Monday with private-sector executives in New York, Mr. Daley and other federal officials said they were trying to instill a sense of urgency to comply with previous requests from the Clinton administration.
"There is a sense of surprise on the part of the private sector on the need for action," Mr. Daley said.
The meeting was the second of a series designed to build momentum for self-regulation of privacy protection. As part of the Internet commerce initiative that President Clinton announced last July, Mr. Daley is to deliver an assessment of such private-sector programs by next July.
"We have a very small window in which to move-that is the message we are trying to get across," Mr. Daley said at a news conference after the corporate roundtable.
Ira Magaziner, a senior presidential adviser on e-commerce issues, also spoke Monday before representatives of 35 companies brought together at the Commerce Department's request by International Business Machines Corp.
Aside from the White House mandate to gather privacy protection data, U.S. companies could also face consequences from the European Union's 1995 Data Protection Directive, which goes into effect in October. In contrast to U.S. self-regulatory preferences, the directive strongly supports government oversight and regulation of consumer privacy.
U.S. organizations could be blocked from European business opportunities if officials there deem U.S. privacy policies inadequate.
Mr. Magaziner said the "premise we are starting from is that people's privacy is not being protected, and we are looking at ways people can protect themselves." He said consumers' fear of their information being mishandled is hindering growth of on-line commerce.
As evidence that the issue must be addressed, Mr. Daley and Mr. Magaziner pointed to the more than 80 bills that were introduced in Congress last year relating to consumer privacy.
Among the ideas the government endorses is the use of seals of approval to signify that a Web site meets certain standards. Some industry groups, like the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, are offering such seals. The Visa and MasterCard associations will be certifying systems that comply with their Secure Electronic Transactions protocol.
"Much of what Secretary Daley is doing is helping the private sector to understand that the administration is serious about effective self- regulation," said Martin E. Abrams, vice president of information policy and privacy for Experian Inc. It is also designed "to give industry a sense of what is considered effective regulation."
Says a Commerce Department discussion draft: "At a mimimum, consumers need to know the identity of the collector of their personal information, the intended uses of the information, and the means by which they may limit its disclosure."