WASHINGTON - American consumers fundamentally misunderstand how Internet companies use their personal information, according to a new survey that concludes tougher federal privacy laws are needed.
The study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, being released Wednesday, said 86 percent of surveyed adults believe companies should be required by law to standardize the promises they make on Web sites about how personal information will be protected.
The findings renewed demands for fresh U.S. privacy laws even as the threat of terrorism and heightened security to meet it have supplanted privacy as a cornerstone for technology policy debates in Washington.
Timothy Muris, chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, has said the agency would step up enforcement of existing privacy laws, and privacy has not been a major issue in congressional debates.
‘‘This kind of privacy issue has sort of fallen down the list of things that legislators have paid attention to over the last couple years,’’ said Robert Pitofsky, former FTC chairman.
Industry groups largely beat back efforts to pass new privacy laws at the height of the e-commerce boom three years ago. They convinced Congress that companies could be trusted to protect online privacy of their customers voluntarily except when a person’s financial or health data were involved.
Lawmakers relented over the objections of the FTC under Pitofsky.
Researchers said the survey of 1,200 adult Internet users shows a significant gap between increasingly sophisticated collection techniques by Internet marketers and a lack of knowledge by Web surfers about how companies track their online movements and use the information.