By GENE JOHNSON
REDMOND — For the next generation of the Internet to thrive, people must be able to trust it, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates told computer experts at a conference on improving Internet privacy and security.
Gates delivered the keynote address Thursday at SafeNet 2000, a two-day summit of 225 privacy and security experts at Microsoft’s suburban campus. He touted the next version of his company’s Windows operating system, which will have the ability to inform customers when Web-based companies have different ideas about privacy than users do.
"As you go to these different Web sites, you ought to be able to know what the policy of that Web site is," Gates said.
"It is more important than ever that our industry gives customers the assurance that their information will remain secure, respected and private."
Microsoft called the summit to determine what people have learned so far about the young fields of Internet security and privacy, and to figure out what the information technology industry needs to do next.
Gates said that for now, self-regulation is key. While government should have a role in responding when companies misuse customer data, Gates said, it’s too soon for government to code privacy standards into law because the field could change greatly over the next year.
In the meantime, companies must make software that helps customers use the Net without compromising private information, such as credit card numbers, Gates said. Web sites should also state clearly how they use data gathered from customers and should have programs that automatically fix weaknesses that could be exploited by hackers, he said.
Most conference participants seemed to agree that Web users should be able to feel confident their information won’t be disclosed to third parties without their permission. But many disagreed about how to reach that goal.
John McCarthy of Forrester Research Inc., a market research firm focusing on Internet policy and regulation, said security is not a technology problem, it’s a management problem. Too many companies don’t know what their own practices are when it comes to handling customer information, he said.
That poses an obstacle for the privacy technology in the new version of Windows, McCarthy said. The technology is based on "P3P," the Platform for Privacy Preferences being developed by the World Wide Web Consortium. If companies don’t know their own practices, they can’t use P3P, McCarthy said.
Others said stronger laws are needed to protect Web users.
"This is a fight over rights, over human rights," said David Flaherty, former information and privacy commissioner of British Columbia. "I’m always suspicious that the argument for self-regulation is, at the end of the day, going to allow companies to do what they want with our information."
The United States should have the same type of legal framework that Europe and Canada have, which typically prohibits companies from using customer data without customer permission, Flaherty said.
"The companies that already meet a high bar aren’t afraid of legislation," said Alex Alben, vice president of government affairs for RealNetworks. "We’d rather have one reasonable set of federal standards than 50 different state laws."
The summit continues todayf.
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