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Internet Sites Collecting Less Personal Data

Internet sites appear to be collecting less personal information from consumers and doing a slightly better job explaining how Web sites use such sensitive data, according to a survey by an opponent of new privacy laws.

The Progress and Freedom Foundation, a Washington think tank, said Wednesday that its survey of 300 Web sites picked at random and 85 more of the in 10 of the most-popular collected personal information from consumers other than e-mail addresses. A similar study in 2000 showed a higher number.

"Firms are responding to consumer concerns," the foundation said, adding that in the wake of the economic problems that struck the technology industry, "firms may also have overestimated the economic value of collecting personal information."

Among the 300 random Web sites, the survey said, about three-fourths collected personal information from consumers, down from the 2000 study.

The survey comes amid an apparent slackening of interest in Washington over new federal Internet privacy laws. The chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, Timothy Muris, announced last year that the agency would step up enforcement of existing privacy laws, and privacy has not been a key issue in congressional debates.

"It seems to show the market is responding ... in an evolutionary, not a revolutionary, way," said Jeff Eisenach, president of the foundation.

The foundation's study also said that nearly all the most-popular Web sites published privacy policies explaining how companies use personal information they collect from consumers, and about three-fourths of the Web sites that collect personal information published such policies. The earlier study said 64 percent of those randomly selected sites did in 2000.

Still, experts have questioned the effectiveness of publishing such explanations. Other studies have found that people spend very little time looking at them.

The survey was conducted for the foundation by Ernst & Young LLP over two weeks in December using methods similar to the FTC's own study in 2000. The foundation, which said it paid for the roughly $100,000 survey out of its general fund, generally opposes government interference in what it calls the digital revolution.

The foundation's financial supporters include many of the nation's largest technology and media companies, including AOL-Time Warner Inc., IBM, Intel Corp., Oracle Corp. and Sun Microsystems Inc.

Among the most-popular sites used in the survey were aol.com, cartoonnetwork.com, microsoft.com, iwon.com, real.com and yahoo.com.

The sites picked at random included britney.com, 123greetings.com, bankofamerica.com, cowdance.com, tivo.com and juno.com. Ernst & Young said it chose those sites out of 7,821 sites visited by at least 39,000 people monthly.

The survey, similar to one conducted in 2000 by the FTC, intentionally excluded all Web sites that did not end in "dot-com," sites that contained adult content, sites directed at children under 13, foreign Web sites and those aimed at business-to-business transactions.

A separate study released this week identified the cost to consumers of protecting their privacy, saying that families could spend between $200 and $300 -- plus "many hours" -- each year to prevent the disclosure of sensitive information. It cited such costs, for example, as Caller ID and answering machines to avoid telemarketers, higher grocery prices for families unwilling to use frequent-shopper discount cards that track their purchases, and anonymizer software for the Internet.

That study was conducted by Robert Gellman, a privacy advocate, and funded by the Digital Media Forum, a project of the Ford Foundation.