EPIC ends ties with Amazon

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington today said it is severing all ties with Amazon.com Inc. because of the change in the online retailer's privacy policy.

Two weeks ago, Seattle-based Amazon announced a new privacy policy (see story) that said it could no longer guarantee that it wouldn't disclose customer information to third parties. For example, the company said, in the event that Amazon.com was acquired by another company, its customer information would be one of its transferred assets. It also said it shared customer data with its online partners.

Because of that change, EPIC, a public-interest research and lobbying organization, said it decided it could no longer continue its relationship with Amazon.com.

Since 1996, EPIC had been selling books online in association with Amazon. As a member of Amazon's Associates Program, EPIC received money for all customers who purchased EPIC-sanctioned and EPIC-published books from Amazon's Web site. A link on EPIC's bookstore page directed consumers to Amazon.com's site so consumers could purchase privacy-related books and other materials from either EPIC or Amazon.com. In addition, Amazon advertised EPIC's publications on its Web site.

However, as of yesterday, EPIC removed the link to Amazon.com from its Web site but couldn't guarantee that Amazon would stop promoting EPIC's publications, according to EPIC spokeswoman Sarah Andrews.

"We want consumers to know that this policy is unacceptable," said Andrews. "But we're not just targeting Amazon. We want [people to understand] that self-regulation does not work. [Companies] can change their privacy policies whenever they want."

Amazon.com spokesman Bill Curry said that although the company respected EPIC's decision, it was important to note that the circumstances under which Amazon.com shares customer information were very explicit.

Curry said that although Amazon shared customer data with its partners, it shared only information related to the particular transaction a customer made with that partner through Amazon's Web site.

"The customer is fully aware that another company, like Drugstore.com, is involved in the transaction," he said.

But Jonathan Gaw, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Mountain View, Calif., said EPIC felt that Amazon.com had too much latitude in what it could do with its customer data.

"EPIC felt that Amazon could share its customer data with any of its [partners], and [Amazon] wouldn't have control over what those partners will do with that data," Gaw said.

In a letter sent today to EPIC subscribers, Executive Director Marc Rotenberg said because of the change in Amazon's privacy policy and "... [I]n 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."

Andrews said consumers could still purchase books and other privacy-related information from EPIC's Web site.

Barrett Ladd, an analyst at Gomez Advisors Inc. in Lincoln, Mass., said that although consumer privacy is an important issue in the online retail world, Amazon was in a difficult position because of its extensive "commerce network."

"Amazon has so many affiliates - other online companies that they invest in like Drugstore.com and Greenlight.com - that they almost have to have that [new] policy because they don't want to get hurt if those affiliates use their customer data," said.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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