by Jeremy Malcolm, Internet lawyer
Nowadays, nobody presumes that their privacy will be respected online. We all know only too well that the more Web forms we fill in, the faster our inboxes fill with spam mail. The response of many Internet users has been to mask their identities on-line by hiding behind nicks or screen names, filling in registration forms with bogus information, and posting to newsgroups with coded reply addresses.
In most circumstances, there is nothing wrong with this very practical tactic, but sometimes you don't want to - or can't - falsify the information you give to a company on the Net. How can you be you be sure that such a company will keep your personal details confidential, and what rights do you have if it breaches that confidence?
Under Australian law, there is no general right of privacy. Since 1998, Australian governments have been obliged to respect your privacy, and this protection has extended to Australian credit providers and credit reporting agencies. Telecommunications companies have been required to protect your private details since 1997. And of course, commercially confidential and copyright information is protected.
But it is only this year that a general obligation to respect consumers' private information is imposed on Australian businesses. This protection, which commences from 21 December 2001, will require businesses with a turnover exceeding $3 million to comply with 11 comprehensive privacy principles. Unfortunately, this exempts the majority of smaller Australian businesses doing business on the Internet - they will not be bound by the same standards until December 2002 - but the protection is certainly a start.
When you are dealing with foreign businesses on the Net, all bets are off. Your best protection is to look for a certification seal from a reputable privacy organisation such as TrustE on the Web site of any overseas Web site you deal with. As well as possibly being a breach of contract, a privacy infringement by a TrustE site can lead to the removal of its certification. Remember also that a Web site that appears to be Australian may in fact be operating from overseas - be sure to ask for evidence if you are unsure.