August 31, 2006 9:55 AM PDT

eBay, Amazon take heat on privacy practices

U.K. watchdog group Privacy International has sparked an inquiry into eBay's handling of personal data, as part of a new campaign against e-commerce sites that may be abusing the privacy of their users.

The civil- and cyber-rights group complained to the U.K.'s Information Commissioner this week about eBay.co.uk, which it claims is breaching the Data Protection Act by making it hard for users to cancel their accounts and delete details of their Web shopping habits and other personal data.

A spokeswoman for the Information Commissioner confirmed Thursday that it is examining Privacy International's complaint.

Privacy International also has published details of an investigation into U.K. e-commerce sites. In it, it claims Amazon U.K. is "the most blatant example of a company that refuses to provide account delete facilities."

"Nowhere on the site can a customer actually delete an account. A trawl through all the 'useful information' statements ('customer charter,' 'privacy notice' and 'privacy policy,' 'security guarantee' and even 'sign out from our site') reveals nothing about closing your account, deleting your personal details or terminating your relationship with Amazon," said Privacy International. "Even the site's search function is useless for this: You can only search for products for purchase, not for information on how to manage your account. In fact, a search for 'delete account' even points to advertisements from 'sponsors' on how to open bank accounts."

According to Privacy International, this is a breach of the U.K.'s Data Protection Act, which says that information "should not be kept longer than necessary."

Amazon U.K. did not respond to requests for comment. On a Web page outlining its "Customer Promise," the company says it complies with the Data Protection Act, but this page does not offer any help on closing an account.

Privacy International also accused eBay.co.uk of creating "substantial obstacles" to customers who want to delete their accounts. In its investigation, it said, it ploughed through numerous Web pages before finally finding one that advised consumers to write to the company to get an account closed. eBay offers the ability to close an account online, but Privacy International claims that this page could only be found if a person happened to enter the right terms into a certain search box.

eBay.co.uk did not respond to requests for comment.

Privacy International said that its complaint against eBay was a test case, and could be followed by complaints against other e-retailers. The Information Commissioner's office said it wasn't aware of any similar complaints being investigated at this time.

Graeme Wearden of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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Privacy International, data protection, Amazon.com Inc., U.K., account

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