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The noble mission to 'empower' on-line consumers reached new heights recently as retail powerhouse Amazon.com released an updated corporate manifesto affecting its American customers and guests, and so blessed us all with firm knowledge that we have no reason to expect any such thing as privacy while doing business on their Web site.

The on-line advertising and retail industries have long resented slack talk involving such dangerous ideas as the need for federal privacy legislation, vehemently insisting that they can regulate themselves according to market pressures, so it was about time someone cleared up a few lingering popular misconceptions.

Extravagant expectations

First, it's time we all got used to the idea that when we expect privacy on line we expect altogether too much. Indeed, the very best we can hope for is to be told accurately and in detail precisely how our privacy is to be violated and our personal details exploited, and here Amazon's new document is nothing short of exemplary.

"By visiting Amazon.com, you are accepting the practices described in [the following] Privacy Notice," we are told from the start. Thus we are forced accept Amazon's terms before we learn what they are. Very shrewd, that -- capitalising on the fine distinction between a 'privacy notice', which we've got here, and a 'privacy agreement', which a handful of Pinko malcontents think we would all prefer.

"We receive and store....information whenever you interact with us," the notice says. As for what they mean by that, examples include "the Internet protocol (IP) address used to connect your computer to the Internet; e-mail address; password; browser type and version, operating system and platform; purchase history; the full Uniform Resource Locators (URL) clickstream to, through, and from our Web site; products you viewed or searched for; zShops you visited; your Auction history, and phone number used to call our 800 number."

Quite a comprehensive list. But of course, these intrusions have been engineered for our benefit. "To help us make e-mails more useful and interesting, we often receive a confirmation when you open e-mail from Amazon.com if your computer supports such capabilities," the statement chirps.

Amazon further admits to associating information they have about us with other information gathered by outside sources. Again, it's for our own good. "For reasons such as....providing better product recommendations or special offers that we think will interest you, we might receive information about you from other sources and add it to our account information."

It's called 'profiling', and it improves the quality of our lives every day, we are told, by enabling Web sites to tailor advertisements to our individual preferences.

Now, if you thought you might escape further monitoring by moving to a new location and neglecting to notify Amazon, you're wrong. "We also sometimes receive updated delivery and address information from our shippers or other sources so that we can correct our records and deliver your next purchase or communication more easily." Man, these guys are good.

But the most important change is the company's admission that every scrap of the information you agreed to trust them with might one day end up in the eager hands of someone you did not. "We might sell or buy stores or assets. In such transactions, customer information generally is one of the transferred business assets. Also, in the unlikely event that Amazon.com, or substantially all of its assets are acquired, customer information will of course be one of the transferred assets."

This is an answer to Toysmart.com, which was forced by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to abandon an offer to sell its entire customer database back in July. Toysmart had originally promised visitors that it would never reveal its records to others, but after declaring bankruptcy sought to sell them anyway. It was the fact of violating the promise not to reveal the data, rather than the actual practice of doing so, that angered the FTC.

Amazon, clearly, will not be making that mistake. Its new privacy notice is a masterpiece of full disclosure, albeit one founded on the presumption that Web users are delighted to sacrifice their privacy so long as they have a detailed account of the clever methods by which they are tricked into doing so. This blithe presumption pervades the New Economy, but it appears to be little more than a vast exercise in wishful thinking.

The masses beg to differ

The on-line ad and retail industries are in fact hopelessly out of step with the wishes of the public, according to a 20 August report by the Pew Charitable Trust Internet and American Life Project, which surveyed 2,117 Americans on electronic privacy issues from 19 May to 21 June.

"The vast majority of American Internet users want the privacy playing field tilted towards them and away from online companies," the report states, confirming what everyone instinctively knows.

The Pew report finds "a powerful consistency" in two major themes: first that "American Internet users overwhelmingly want the presumption of privacy when they go online;" and second, that "a great many Internet users do not know the basics of how their online activities are observed and do not use available tools to protect themselves" from unwanted intrusions.

Incredibly, a full eighty-six per cent of Internet users are "in favour of 'opt-in' privacy policies that require Internet companies to ask people for permission to use their personal information."

This finding "challenges the policy just negotiated by the Clinton Administration, the Federal Trade Commission, and a consortium of Web advertisers, which gives Web sites the right to track Internet users unless the users take steps to 'opt out' of being monitored," the report notes.

And as for the industry myth that tracking is welcomed by Web surfers eager to receive commercial come-ons adapted to their preferences, the study finds that "just twenty-seven per cent [of Internet users] say tracking is helpful because it allows the sites to provide information tailored to specific consumers." A full fifty-four per cent said that tracking constitutes an invasion of privacy.

But Netizens ought not to fret. The Amazon manifesto is such a bald-faced, frontal assault on privacy that it confirms everyone's worst fears about the intentions of Internet marketeers, and is likely to have the ironic effect of finally inspiring Congress to pass at least one of the scores of privacy initiatives it has been dithering over during the past two years. ®

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