Most of the current crop of candidates for president aren't giving enough prominence to privacy issues on their Web sites--six of the candidates earning an "F" in privacy protection--according to a report by a high-tech policy group.
Of the 11 leading candidates for president, only two--Democrat Al Gore and Republican John McCain--got an "A" grade from the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT). Republicans Texas Gov. George W. Bush, Elizabeth Dole and Dan Quayle number among those who flunked the group's privacy test.
"Many of the candidates have discussed the importance of privacy for the future. But their actions within their own campaign speak louder than their words," said CDT policy analyst Ari Schwartz.
The 2000 presidential campaign is the first truly wired election, with every major candidate hosting a site on the World Wide Web. Those sites aren't just fonts of press releases: The campaigns see them as potential focal points for going beyond traditional tactics for organizing volunteers and soliciting campaign contributions.
At the same time, privacy has emerged as one of the most contentious issues of the online world. Since Internet explorations can be tracked by the Web sites people visit, many consumers are increasingly demanding that they be informed on each site about what kinds of data are being collected and how that data will be used.
There is no overarching legal structure to protect online privacy. Congress has passed a law designed to protect the privacy of children online, and the issue has been taken up by the Clinton administration on many levels, with the Federal Trade Commission encouraging owners of Web sites to create and prominently post their privacy policies.
According to the group, only Vice President Gore and Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.) provided a link to privacy policies on their Web sites' home page--the first stop for any visitor and the most prominent place to post such a link. The sites also earned their high marks for offering links to privacy information on later pages dedicated to signing up volunteers and to making political contributions.
The candidates whose sites reflected strong privacy policies have generally been involved with the issue.
Gore, whose pride in his high-tech prowess is so pronounced that he made an early campaign gaffe in which he claimed to have helped create the Internet, has made numerous public statements about the need to protect privacy.
And from the Gore campaign, spokeswoman Kiki Moore said, "We're proud that the Gore 2000 campaign Web site is an effective tool for communicating important information about Al Gore's efforts for our country's working families, including critical issues around technology and its value in our lives."
Mindy Tucker, a spokeswoman for the Bush campaign, said, "We are in the midst right now of some comprehensive changes to our Web site, and that is one of them."
The head of another high-tech policy organization said the study focused on the wrong issues. "I don't think the issue is about whether candidates are posting privacy policies on their Web site," said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "I think the issue is whether candidates will back legislation to protect the privacy issues of American voters."
CAPTION: An advocacy group rates the Gore and McCain sites as tops in privacy disclosure; the Bush and five other sites flunked.