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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

BY TRACEY E. SCHELMETIC
Managing Editor, C@LL CENTER CRM Solutions


[October 18, 2000]

The Rising Backlash Against Information Retrieval

Here's a survey for you. It's 10:00 PM on a Thursday evening. You've just sat down in front of your computer with your mug of Ovaltine and have decided to surf and shop for a few books and videos on a popular e-commerce site. During the course of your 45 minute shopping experience, you research three French cuisine cookbooks but decide not to buy one; you find and buy a VHS copy of "Gone With The Wind" for your Aunt Millie; you purchase a DVD copy of "Terminating RamboCop With A Vengeance, Part VIII," and just for kicks, you surf the self-help book section and read a blurb about the new book, "Men Are From Earth, Women Are From Earth. Deal With It." 

Three days later, you receive 10 "special offers" in your e-mail inbox. Four are for Spanish and Italian cookbooks, one is for a video biography of Clark Gable, three are for new humanity-obliterating action films on DVD, and the last are messages inviting you to peruse the section of books helping you improve your waistline, your marriage, your children, your Feng Shui, your relationship with your mother, your sense of discipline over your cat, and your ability to openly relate to gardening tools.

Your reaction is:

A) Terrific! It's so nice that this company took the time to figure out what my interests are and kindly let me know that there are other products for me to buy!

B) I am never surfing the Internet again! It's as bad as someone peering into my house with binoculars. Surely this should be illegal.

C) WowI really DO need to get a better grip on my relationship with my cat.

Most Internet marketers and online retailers would like to believe that your response is going to be A. If you're like most Netizens, however, your reaction is likely to be closer to B. (If your response is C, I recommend you find a hobby and get out of the house more.)

The issue of personal data selling is heating up to become a touchy topic. The Web surfing public is becoming more and more leery in light of reports that scores of online organizations keep piles of personal data about each surfer and sell and trade the information like they would commodities. What is this information? Where is it stored? Who has access to it? How is it being used, exactly? Your guess is as good as anyone's.

Think about all the information you've input into Web forms over the past years. Your name, address, phone number, e-mail addresses, purchases, and credit card details. Think of the other info that sites have gathered about you through inference -- your product preferences, the Web sites you visit, how often you are online, which pages you click onto, how long you spend on different sites/pages, if you prefer self-help or live help, if you visit chatrooms. This information is worth its weight in gold to online marketers and there are endless vehicles employed by these companies to get more information out of you. Have you ever entered a contest online? Ordered a free catalog? Filled in a survey? The entire point behind that exercise was to get you to offer personal information about yourself and your buying habits.

As I mentioned above, the online marketers would like you to think they're collecting personal information for your own good and that you should not opt-out of receiving marketing communiqus in different media. Online marketing company DoubleClick tells us they "deliver advertising based on a user's interests if that user has chosen to receive targeted advertising. We believe that frequency control, and relevant content makes advertising on the Web less intrusive by ensuring that users are not bombarded with repeat and irrelevant ad messages. Opting-out removes our ability both to control frequency of exposure to individual users and to increase the level of relevant content."

From the sounds of many of these companies, "opting-out" is as easy as sneezing. The reality is, every trick in the book has been employed to make sure you don't find or correctly read the information that allows you to refuse their collection of your information. Often, there is a box for you to uncheck in order to opt-out. Just as often, the box is in four-point type, obscured by logos or is located so far into the margin you'd need extra-sensory perception to know it was there. Another trick employed is to word the permission request so muddily you're not quite sure what you're agreeing to. "Click here if you don't not want to receive no marketing materials not ever again!"

The battle cry of the players in the online advertising and marketing industry has always been self-regulation, but it has become clear that this has worked about as well as asking your average mouse to self-regulate himself away from the cheddar. The online retailers and marketers that have honorably made attempts to respect privacy are understandably getting ticked off that many of their competitors have not. In some cases, the companies with formerly good privacy practices have thrown in the towel and decided to collect and share data. (Amazon.com is a prime example of this, as the company made a controversial decision to overturn its no data-selling privacy policy a few months ago.)

Many key e-commerce players are stepping forward to urge the industry to take a harder stance on the subject. The Global Business Dialogue on E-Commerce  is an organization formed by 72 companies (including America Online and Time Warner in leading roles). These companies' reasoning is two-pronged. In the first place, they believe that customers who feel secure about buying online will buy more, and madly collecting and selling personal information is self-destructive. (Security concerns are often cited as a primary reason for abandoned shopping carts.) Second, the GBDE believes that if the industry doesn't regulate itself, the Federal Government will, and enforced legislation is bound to be much harsher than what companies would impose on themselves. (For example, while many companies support a mandatory opt-out function, which allows consumers to take the initiative to disallow collection of their personal data, few companies would support a government-favored opt-in function, which means the companies can only trade data on those consumers who give specific permission to do so. E-tailers very correctly deduce that few consumers would choose to opt-in.)

Legislation to take the place of failed attempts at self-regulation is a very real specter on the horizon. There are already attempts in Congress to formulate laws against many of the more privacy-invading practices. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator John Kerry (D-MA) have drafted The Consumer Privacy Enforcement Act, a bill dictating that Web sites must clearly make their privacy policies available for visitors and must offer visitors the choice to opt-out of having their data collected. This bill is still a long way away from approval, but just the fact that the issue is on Congress's desktop is telling.

The public's response has been just as telling. The rise of popular sites such as SpamCop and Junk Busters is sending a message to marketers and legislators alike that the rampant misuse of personal information is putting a decided crimp on the expansion of e-commerce.

Unless you're willing to give up shopping, researching and surfing entirely, it's hard to protect yourself and your personal data. If you're not willing to go to such an extreme, I recommend being careful about what information you're giving to whom. The organizers of an online survey do not need your home address. If they want it, skip the survey. When you buy a book online, the e-tailer does not need to know the ages of your children. Go elsewhere. No one online needs your social security number. Be aware that every time you give someone your e-mail address, there SHOULD be a box for you to uncheck to chose not to have spam sent to youunless you really have a burning desire to know how you can make your cat happier using Feng Shui.

Send e-mail to tschelmetic@tmcnet.com if you'd like to maybe not make sure you don't miss not communicating with the author.


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