March 1, 2000 11:25 AM PST

Consumer group blasts DoubleClick in report to FTC

Another consumer advocacy group has filed a report to the Federal Trade Commission alleging potential privacy violations in the way online advertising firm DoubleClick collects user information.

The filing, released yesterday by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), alleges that DoubleClick may be collecting sensitive information about user purchases, including video titles, salaries and search terms, through its ad-serving technology. The filing also alleges that DoubleClick may be linking information collected about user surfing habits to individual identities in its Abacus Online database.

"Companies could be transporting information that could be possibly used by DoubleClick in a personally identifiable way without the companies' knowledge," said Ari Schwartz, a CDT representative. "(Companies) could be violating their own privacy policy without knowing it."

A DoubleClick representative declined to comment on the report. However, the company plans to release a statement addressing these allegations later today, the representative said.

The CDT's complaint follows a similar filing to the FTC by the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), a privacy watchdog group.

DoubleClick already faces six lawsuits, some of which have gained class-action status, as well as informal inquiries by the FTC and New York's attorney general. In addition, Michigan's attorney general took steps last month to file a consumer protection lawsuit against the company on behalf of state residents.

Controversy about DoubleClick erupted earlier this year when the company revealed a plan to track consumers' movements online and to attach that data to people's real names and addresses. The point of compiling such dossiers is to better target advertisements to consumers as they surf the Web.

The plan, which is still in the works, became possible after DoubleClick sealed a $1.7 million merger in November with Abacus Direct, a Broomfield, Colo.-based company that markets consumer-purchasing data to catalog firms.

The company has said it will not associate sensitive information--such as health, financial or sexual orientation--with an individual, nor will it associate data collected from children.

But with yesterday's CDT filing, companies may be taking a second look at their relationship with DoubleClick, according to the CDT's Schwartz.

He said that the CDT has spoken to companies such as home-delivery service Kozmo.com about its findings. He added that these companies have "distanced themselves" from DoubleClick because of these potential privacy lapses.

A Kozmo representative said the company has discontinued its relationship with DoubleClick, but only because of a decision made four months ago to remove ad banners from its site. The representative confirmed that Kozmo was informed of the potential privacy lapse but downplayed it as a factor for ending its relationship with DoubleClick.

"Kozmo had already decided it would soon discontinue the use of DoubleClick's Dart for Publishers software," according to a company statement. "Should its plans change in the future, Kozmo would again consider working with DoubleClick or any other ad-serving software vendor."

Another company mentioned in the report was CMGI-owned Web portal AltaVista. "AltaVista provides one of the leading search engines on the Web," according to the CDT's filing. "When visitors use the AltaVista search engine, each search term is relayed to DoubleClick."

AltaVista already has taken steps to limit the information that DoubleClick can gather about its users' habits.

Over the weekend, the portal instituted a policy that gives its users choice regarding who views their personal information, introducing an opt-in feature to its registration system. That means when people register with AltaVista, which the company requires in return for services such as free email or free Internet access, they have to click a box to allow DoubleClick's technology to match ads to their habits.

Previous to this move, AltaVista automatically shared data with DoubleClick's ad-matching technology when users registered for its services.

AltaVista spokesman David Emanuel said the FTC's investigation of DoubleClick did not affect its decision. Rather, introducing an opt-in policy had been "in the planning stages for several weeks."

Furthermore, Emanuel described AltaVista's relationship with DoubleClick as "very strong." Despite letting users skirt DoubleClick's ad-matching capabilities, AltaVista will continue to use the company as its ad-server.

News.com's Patricia Jacobus contributed to this report.

 

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