Microsoft to Web sites: Behave!

Redmond says it will pull ads from sites that don't post strong privacy policies.


Kaitlin Quistgaard
June 24, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

You can't blame Microsoft for wanting to avoid another run-in with the feds -- and that seems to be the primary impetus for its big privacy announcement on Wednesday. The Internet's biggest advertiser made a splash with the news that it won't buy ads on any site that doesn't post "comprehensive privacy statements."

Congress -- fired up by constituents' outrage over spam and fear that their online behavior is being tracked -- has made plenty of noise about regulating privacy on the Net, with some politicians suggesting that the industry needs to do what's right by consumers or face regulation. As Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, put it in April: "The last thing you want is for us to come in with a heavy hand ... and that's where it's headed." Meanwhile, the Federal Trade Commission is currently preparing its Internet privacy recommendations for Congress.

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This is the climate in which Microsoft has announced the strategy of pulling its big bucks -- the company spent more than $34 million on Net advertising in 1998 -- from any site that dares mess with consumers' right to privacy. The goal is "to make the Web a safer place for customers," explains Microsoft spokeswoman Melissa Covelli.

IBM announced a similar program earlier this year, but Covelli says the "real difference" between the two is the "comprehensive" privacy policy Microsoft is demanding. Plenty of sites have put up privacy statements, she says, but "do they really hold water? ... We need to focus on the quality."

Microsoft is asking the sites on which it advertises to have a privacy policy in place by January 2000. To meet Microsoft's requirements, such a policy must address: "notice of customer information being collected; consent to provide such information; access to that information; security of the information, including considerations for children; and enforcement of the privacy statement."

How closely will Microsoft monitor the privacy policies and their enforcement?

"Microsoft doesn't really have the clout to do that," says Covelli. So it is "strongly encouraging" sites to get their privacy statement certified by independent organizations like Truste or the Better Business Bureau's BBB Online. (Microsoft is a Truste sponsor.) It is also promoting its Privacy Wizard, a free online service that will help Web-site hosts develop a privacy policy -- in about an hour.

Still, the "wizard" that could keep unscrupulous Web sites from abusing visitors' personal information has yet to be created.

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Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

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