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The federal government could do a better job of practicing the privacy habits that the Federal Trade Commission preaches for commercial Web sites, according to a General Accounting Office report released today. The report, which three prominent Republican lawmakers commissioned in June, applied the FTC’s “fair information practices” recommendations to 65 federal government Web sites, from the State Department to the White House Fellows Program to the FTC’s own site. According to the report, only 3 percent of the sites contained “elements” of all four of the fair-information practices promulgated by the FTC. “This GAO report is a devastating assessment of the Clinton-Gore administration’s failure to live by its own privacy standards,” said Rep. Richard Armey (R-Texas), the U.S. House of Representatives’ majority leader, in a statement. “People with glass Web sites should not throw stones.” In May, the FTC asked Congress to pass baseline legislation mandating privacy notices for commercial sites, user choice regarding commercial sites’ sharing of personal information, and undefined levels of user access and data security for commercial sites. The report was a bellwether in the online privacy debate here, as the FTC moved away from years of leaving the issue to industry self-regulation to join an increasing number of lawmakers and commercial firms in advocating new broad-based online privacy legislation. The FTC’s May report said that, while commercial sites had made some progress, the four criteria were far from standard practice and needed to be codified by Congress. In June, U.S. House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Texas), and Reps. W.J. Tauzin (R-La.) and Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.), wrote a letter to President Clinton and Vice President Gore charging that it would be “hypocritical for the Federal government to mandate a standard on the private sector that it cannot itself meet.” Through a spokesman, Rep. Tauzin declined to comment before this morning’s press conference. Rep. Goodlatte couldn’t be reached for comment. The Clinton administration is dismissing the report as an invalid comparison of government and commercial Web sites. The administration says that use of personal information by federal Web sites is governed by the Privacy Act of 1974, a much tougher legal standard than the voluntary self-regulation currently employed by commercial sites. “We believe that the statistics in this report are seriously misleading,” says Peter Swire, the administration’s chief privacy counselor. In a Sept. 7 letter to the GAO, Sally Katzen, an Office of Management and Budget official, said the report’s findings were “comparable to a complaint that an apple lacks a thick, orange rind.” Swire pointed to another GAO report released last week that found that 69 of 70 federal Web sites surveyed posted privacy notices. Swire said that the Privacy Act mandates that, with some exceptions, the federal government can’t share personal data without the explicit consent of the individual, a stronger standard than that recommended by the FTC. Furthermore, Swire said, citizens have unfettered access to their data in government files. Swire added that, while the GAO report merely graded government sites on whether they mentioned data security, the administration is strongly committed to tight security on all of its sites. On Monday, Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) released a “report card” that faulted federal agencies for poor computer security. OMB administrator John Spotila questioned the accuracy of Horn’s grading system in testimony before a House subcommittee. Related Articles from The Industry Standard: AmEx � Don’t Surf the Web Without It Behind the Curtain Users to Web: Mind Your Own Business Copyright (c)2000 The Industry Standard

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