September 13, 2000 1:40 PM PDT

Privacy groups criticize new Amazon policy

Amazon.com's new privacy policy could put customers at risk, according to two watchdog groups that have recently cut ties with the online bookseller.

One of the groups, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)--a research center in Washington, D.C.--pulled its books from Amazon's shelves last night, ending a four-year relationship. The move was a way of protesting a common practice by online retailers of periodically changing privacy rules, said Sarah Andrews, a policy analyst at EPIC.

"Privacy policies are generally vague, often contradictory and confusing," she said. "This is our way of showing that consumers shouldn't be asked to rely on a company's self-regulation for protection."

Amazon spokesman Bill Curry acknowledged that the company changed its policy two weeks ago. It alerts customers that information about them could be considered as part of the company's assets in the "unlikely event that Amazon.com is acquired."

"The new policy is more constraining on Amazon and highlights two unlikely conditions," Curry said.

But EPIC and Junkbusters, a privacy clearinghouse in New Jersey, charge that Amazon changed its policy after witnessing the heavy criticism Toysmart.com endured when the online toy store tried to claim names and information about 250,000 customers as an asset that could be sold. The Web site originally promised its customers that information about them would never be shared.

The move came just hours before a global privacy forum kicked off this week in Washington, D.C.

In addition, Amazon Security, privacy issues make Net users uneasyis facing several class-action lawsuits in U.S. District Court in Seattle on the grounds of electronic privacy invasion. The lawsuits stem from the company's implementation of technology acquired with Alexa Internet one year ago. Alexa makes software that monitors Web traffic.

Privacy concerns have become increasingly important as many Web businesses have engaged in the practice of collecting personal data from visitors. Organizations such as EPIC and Junkbusters have fought for consumer rights, lobbying politicians and urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate companies that illegally sell that data.

So far, regulators have not stepped in on this latest attack against Amazon, Andrews said.

The nonprofit EPIC has been a member of Amazon's Advantage program since 1996. The program works as a referral service for those interested in EPIC's publications. Andrews could not say how many of EPIC's books have been sold through Amazon, but she did acknowledge that her job as the publications director is sure to get tougher.

"I used to just ship 40 books at one time to Amazon and now I'll have to send them to 40 different addresses," she said. But the hassle is worth it, she said. "This is the first step. We really want to send the message that some sort of privacy legislation is needed to regulate the policies of companies like Amazon."

 

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