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SAFEGUARD CYBER-PRIVACY FROM TELEMARKETERS

The prospect of cyberspace becoming the next great frontier for annoying telemarketers who invariably call during the dinner hour already has infuriated some on-line subscribers.

It should rile federal regulators, too.

America Online, the nation's largest on-line provider, sparked the controversy with its decision -- quickly aborted -- to sell the telephone numbers of its 8 million subscribers to telemarketers.

Deluged by complaints from subscribers and castigated by privacy experts, the company canceled the planned deal within days after the details became widely known.

But that doesn't erase the threat to consumers, who already get inundated with junk mail as magazines and catalog companies sell their mailing lists.

The America Online plan involved selling not just names and addresses, but computer addresses and home telephone numbers, too. And a Federal Trade Commission member put her finger on an even bigger reason for consumer dread. Services like AOL have a lot more information about subscribers than the average credit-card company. That personal information can be gleaned from users' cyber-habits, expanded each time they sign on and surf the net, and then easily passed to telemarketers for a price.

It's a prospect that should frighten anyone concerned about privacy.

The FTC has so far taken a hands-off approach when it comes to cyberspace marketing to adults. Thus far, it has limited itself to holding workshops while relying on the industry to regulate itself. As AOL's aborted foray with the telemarketers indicates, that approach may not be sufficient for long.

Rep. Bruce Vento, a Minnesota Democrat, has a better idea. Legislation he introduced seven months ago would require on-line services to get a subscriber's written consent before passing information to a third party. It would also give subscribers access to any information about them compiled by the on-line service.

That sounds like a minimal amount of protection that can safeguard privacy rights while not hindering the growth of the Internet.

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