FTC concerned with privacy of health care Web sites

The Federal Trade Commission is looking into revelations that at least one health care World Wide Web site, and potentially many more, shared personal customer information with third parties without proper consumer notification.

The California HealthCare Foundation released a report Feb. 1 that painted a nonflattering profile of the privacy policies and practices of 21 health-related Web sites, including iVillage.com, a New York-based site focusing on woman's issues. Press reports surfaced last week indicating that iVillage.com was one of the companies contacted by the FTC.

In an interview with Federal Computer Week, an iVillage spokesman confirmed that the FTC had contacted the company. "We are not being investigated," the iVillage spokesman said. "We received a phone call in early February from the FTC inviting us to attend a meeting with their staff about health and medical privacy policies and practices within the industry."

He also said iVillage was not the only company contacted. "It is our understanding that other companies were contacted, too...and right now this is just an inquiry, not an investigation — it hasn't elevated to that yet and may not."

FTC spokeswoman Claudia Bourne Farrell said, "We have an ongoing and longstanding interest in protecting consumer privacy online," adding that the department has conducted numerous surveys and released several reports on the subject since 1998 and is currently conducting another online privacy study that will be released later this year.

However, in an interview with FCW, Farrell said the commission had no comment on any inquiry or investigation it might be conducting into privacy issues on health care Web sites.

iVillage.com's meeting with the FTC is scheduled for early March, but an exact date has not been set, the company spokesman said.

The California HealthCare Foundation report is available online.

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