Amazon.com's Privacy Policies in Spotlight Again

U.S., U.K. probes urged

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Privacy Patrol

Two U.S. privacy groups are asking the FTC to take action against Amazon.com:


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To stop Amazon from disclosing customers’ information without their consent



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To require Amazon to offer its customers the option to delete all information about their identity and purchases



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To require Amazon to tell any customer who asks exactly what information it has disclosed or exchanged with other companies



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To provide each customer complete access to his customer profile.












Privacy groups on both sides of the Atlantic are calling on government agencies to investigate Amazon.com Inc.'s U.S. and U.K. operations, alleging that the online retailer violated U.S. trade practices and U.K. data protection laws.

In a letter to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) last week, the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington and Junkbusters Corp. in Green Brook, N.J., asked the agency to determine whether Amazon deceived its U.S. customers by changing its privacy policy to permit disclosure of personal customer information, the groups said.

The two groups charged that Seattle-based Amazon's recently changed privacy policy is inconsistent with its previous policy, which said the company would never disclose customer information to third parties. Therefore, that policy is deceptive and illegal under FTC regulations. An FTC spokesman said the agency would review the request.

Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, said Amazon has removed the option that allows customers to send e-mail requesting that the online retailer not share personal customer data with other companies. "If Amazon gets away with this, we are going to have to revise the meaning of the word 'never' in dictionaries," he said.

But Amazon.com spokeswoman Patty Smith said the new privacy policy allows the company to sell customers' personal information only under certain circumstances, such as if Amazon or one of its business units is sold.

"If we sold our bookstore tab, the only customer data we would sell would pertain to the bookstore," she said.

She added that Amazon would give customers the opportunity to have their personal information deleted before it was sold to another company.

Catlett, however, said he has asked Amazon to delete his account and destroy all his personal information. He said Amazon told him it couldn't honor his request because "it is part of our business transaction records."

In Britain, Privacy International, a London-based human rights organization, asked the U.K. Data Protection Commissioner to stop Amazon's U.K. affiliate from processing customer data until the unit complies with the U.K. data protection law. That law stipulates in part that companies must show their U.K. customers all the information about them and to delete it on request.

Barrett Ladd, an analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass., said Amazon was almost forced to change its privacy policy. "Amazon has so many [partners]—other online companies that they invest in like Drugstore.com and Greenlight.com, with whom they share customer data back and forth—that they almost have to have that [new] policy because they don't want to get hurt if those affiliates use their customer data," she said.

Smith said the only time Amazon would share customer information with a partner like Drugstore.com would be if that customer chose to complete a transaction with Drugstore.com.

"We may give the customer's address to Drugstore.com to make it easier for Drugstore.com [to ship the goods]," Smith said. "But we would never tell Drugstore.com about your book or CD purchases."

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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