The Clinton Administration on Monday proposed that communications networks obtain explicit authorization from consumers before they disclose credit card data but suggested a lower standard for the release of certain other personal information.
The 28-page report by the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Agency said that reform was needed to address longstanding concerns about privacy and security that the report says has discouraged "vigorous consumer activity" over emerging electronic networks such as the Internet.
"Our concern is that people will be reluctant to participate in the 'information age' if they're afraid that personal information is used for unintended purposes, or for purposes that are embarrassing, harmful or improper," Assistant Commerce Secretary Larry Irving, who heads NTIA, told a group gathered at a White House ceremony Monday.
The report urged voluntary industry compliance but warned that if "industry self-regulation does not produce adequate notice and customer-consent procedures, government action will be needed."
Officials of on-line services could not be reached Monday or declined to comment until they had a chance to study the report.
Some experts suggested that security and privacy may not be a top concern for some consumers, many of whom now freely give out credit card information over the phone to mail order companies and even to strangers such as telemarketers.
But the recommendations come as businesses rush to transform the Internet and other on-line information services into the nerve center for electronic commerce, such as home shopping, banking and bill paying.
Domestic commercial on-line services such as CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online now boast of more than 8 million subscribers, and corporations are setting up sites on the Internet at the rate of more than 20,000 a month, according to the Information and Interactive Services Report in Washington.
NTIA's proposals were welcomed by some on-line activists.
"I think the report is moving in the right direction," said Jamie Love, director of the Taxpayer Assets Project, a Washington-based consumer group.