AUSTIN, Texas -- At the mythical Fearmonger's Shoppe ("Serving all your phobia needs") in Lake Wobegon last week, there was a special on ways to prevent your early death from the frightful menace of bad handwriting by doctors. A puzzled pharmacist studies an impenetrable prescription and mutters: "Hmm, hmm, looks like 50 milligrams arsenic ... odd. ... Oh well") and you go home. In eight hours, you're lying in a huge refrigerator and your family is planning the memorial service.

Poor penmanship among doctors is estimated to cause as many as 198,000 deaths a year. I bring this up because my reaction to this wonderful whimsy was, "I bet it's happened." And that brings us to the most useful paranoia in our public life: growing concerns about privacy.

Paranoia has its uses, and the good news is that our well-justified paranoia about people collecting information about us is finally beginning to make the politicians stir. Unfortunately, it will have to get a lot worse before it moves the pols beyond their gratitude for big campaign contributions from the high-tech industry. The dirty little secret of the information age is that what it sells is information, and information about us is where much of its profit will come.

In addition to the Internet, financial companies and health-insurance companies are big on snooping around and seeing what they can collect on us, with obvious and catastrophic consequences. Most companies use the information for commercial purposes -- they can target our wine-buying habits, our clothes-buying habits, our book-buying habits, our music-buying habits. All the better to sell us more stuff. Buy on the Web, and watch three dozen catalogues arrive in your mail and 200 junk e-mail messages show up in just a few weeks.

This is not to mention outright criminal misuse of information -- people who can steal your identity, access your credit cards and clean out your bank account. Information about your prescriptions or your travel plans can be sold. Stalkers have used the Net. Big Brother is here. Pep up your paranoia now.

The political reaction to all this is quite interesting. The Federal Trade Commission came out in May with proposals for some fairly tough new privacy rules on the Internet. But lo and behold, industry groups and the Republicans in Congress (happy recipients of mucho dinero from high-tech groups) promptly announced that nothing needs to be done.

The industry's promises to self-regulate are a joke. The FTC found that only 20 percent of major companies on the Internet have adequate standards for protecting privacy.

The FTC wants to regulate the kinds of notices that consumers are given about the fact that information about them is being collected and sold, and to allow people to block the use of that information. The FTC proposes to establish rules for keeping information private from third parties, like private detectives who use the Net. And it wants to be able to penalize companies that violate privacy rules.

Fortunately, this is a political issue that R's and D's can join together on. Some of our conservative friends with that nice libertarian streak -- New York Times columnist William Safire among them -- are hot on the case.

The key words you want to remember are "opt in" and "opt out." What we want is a system where you have to opt in -- that is, give your permission -- before any information about you can be passed along. Giving people the opt-out option, which is the trick that Sen. Phil Gramm pulled in the big banking bill, is useless.

How many people are going to call or write and say, "Don't use my information," when they don't even know that information about them is being collected and sold? We should also have the right to know what information about us is being passed around.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.