Despite the torrent of privacy regulations flowing from the European Commission in recent years, internet surfers’ personal details are safer in the US than they are across the Atlantic, according to UK-headquartered Consumers International.

The watchdog, comprising over 250 consumer groups across 110 countries, has conducted an EC-funded study of 751 websites to investigate online privacy. It found that the stateside system of self-regulation currently protects web users’ privacy better than European law.

Around 80% of European websites fail to offer consumers the chance to opt out of having their details catalogued and reused, despite a requirement to do so under EU law. In contrast, nearly 60% of the most popular sites in the US include this feature.

And although fewer websites in Europe collect data on customers (63% compared to 90% in the US), they are far less likely to provide visitors with a public privacy policy than their stateside counterparts – 32% include this service in Europe, 62% in the US. Again, this flouts EU regulations.

Five different EC Directives exist to protect online privacy, in addition to sections of various treaties and charters such as the European Charter of Fundamental Rights. The five member states who have not enshrined the Privacy Directive into national law are required to do so by January 2002.

“Despite tight EU legislation … US-based sites tend to set the standard for decent privacy policies,” the report concluded, adding that one of the main problems was the lack of resources for implementing regulations.

“The evidence is that enforcement [of the regulations] is simply not happening,” explained Consumer International’s director Anna Fielder. “When you talk to the national regulators who are supposed to make sure the rules are applied they always complain of a lack of funding and a lack of staff for an enormous amount of work.”

However, it is not all gloom for European surfers. “Consumers in the EU have a right to redress. There is a law, there is an enforcement agency in each state,” continued Fielder. “Redress in the case of abuse is not available in the US with the voluntary systems they have.”

News source: Wall Street Journal