Privacy Watchdogs Blast Amazon

Two noted privacy watchdog groups have ended partnerships with Amazon.com over recent changes in the online bookseller’s privacy policy.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a Washington, D.C.-based research center, announced Wednesday that it will no longer be selling any of its publications in association with Amazon.

“In the absence of legal or technical means to assure privacy for Amazon customers, we have decided that we can no longer continue our relationship with Amazon,” said EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg.

Meanwhile, a second organization, Junkbusters, which collects information about online privacy and how to protect personal information, also said it will leave Amazon’s affiliate program.

‘Unacceptably Weak’

Amazon’s revised privacy policy allows the online retailer to treat personal information gathered at its site and those of its online affiliates as business assets that could be bought and sold as online properties change hands. Amazon informed its 23 million customers of the change in e-mails earlier this month.

In a scathing letter to Amazon, Junkbusters president Jason Catlett called for immediate changes in the policy. Catlett said he e-mailed Amazon’s customer service department requesting to have his information removed, only to be told that part of his data had become a permanent part of Amazon’s “business records.”

“Amazon’s current privacy policy is unacceptably weak,” Catlett wrote. “The fact that the policies of many of its competitors are worse is no excuse, because Amazon’s leadership position means that it directly affects a very large number of individuals as well as prevailing industry standards.”

Calls to Amazon seeking comment were not immediately returned.

Surprise Move

Amazon’s move stunned many in the online world because it seemed to fly directly in the face of a growing body of public opinion on the privacy topic. Web users have said they do not mind having their personal data tracked and shared — as long as they have a chance to “opt-in” to the tracking first or at least the option to “opt-out” of a program at any time.

“Like most companies, Amazon seems to think of the data it holds about its customers as its own property to do whatever it wishes with, regardless of the interests of the people the data is about,” Catlett said.

To deflect such criticism, Amazon representatives in published reports said that the new policy was clearer and better, spelling out the conditions under which personal information can be transferred. That explanation also came under fire.

“Under the old policy, customers at least had the option of never having their information sold, under the new policy, they don’t have that option, and the policy might be changed to sell their information without their affirmative consent,” Catlett said. “Being more up front and explicit about a bad and changeable policy is not an improvement.”

Calls for Change

Junkbusters has called for Amazon to make substantive changes in the new policy, including disclosing information about customers only with their consent or as required by law, providing customers on request with all information held by Amazon about them and deleting all personal information held about customers on request.

Privacy concerns have increasingly become a flashpoint for debate over whether Web businesses should engage in the practice of harvesting data from its customers. Organizations such as EPIC and Junkbusters are undertaking intense lobbying campaigns to urge the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to investigate companies that illegally sell data.

Amazon’s status as a bellwether e-commerce firm was not lost on EPIC.

“We are witnessing the slow erosion of online privacy under the industry’s self-regulatory approach,” said Rotenberg.

Early Partner

EPIC had been affiliated with Amazon since 1996 and has sold sourcebooks, pamphlets and annual reports on the state of online privacy through the Amazon Advantage program since 1998.

Sarah Andrews, director of publications, said the organization is searching for a new way to distribute its information over the Web. In the meantime, the group will sell its wares directly, she added.

The decision comes just as EPIC prepared to release two sourcebooks on privacy law, including an international survey of privacy law and developments during the last 12 months.

Mostly Good History

In a letter to EPIC subscribers, Rotenberg said despite some complaints from members — some voiced outrage over the large volume of spam sent by the retailer while others objected to its aggressive pursuit of its 1-Click patent — he had been “generally pleased with the Amazon privacy policy” for several years.

“We understood that Amazon did not disclose personally identifiable information to affiliates… and offered assurances that it would not disclose customer information to third parties,” Rotenberg wrote.

The September 1st policy change altered that perception.

“We are eager to make our publications and the publications of others available to you,” Rotenberg said, “but the protection of privacy must come first.”

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