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Hotmail has come under criticism for placing its subscribers' email addresses on a public Internet directory site when they sign up for the service, making them easy prey for spammers.

Customers signing onto Microsoft's free Web based email service are automatically added to Infospace's Internet White Pages directory by default, something that has got under the skin of privacy activists.

Uunless users opt-out by checking a box on Hotmail's registration form, their addresses can rapidly enter spammers' databases, as Infospace's privacy protection methods can be bypassed using a number of methods.

Usually, Infospace does not directly display a person's email address - listings link only to forms which can be used to send emails to recipients. However, according to an Associated Press report, these email addresses can easily be obtained by running a search from an easy-to-find "backdoor" page, among other techniques.

Microsoft's defence from criticism on the issue is also far from convincing.

A feature called "In-box Protector" allows Hotmail users to filter out most, but not all of their spam messages, but this really doesn't go far enough in helping users to deal with junk email.

For one thing Microsoft sees Hotmail users inclusion on the Infospace directory as a "consumer benefit" - an attitude we feel it would surely change if it had to pay for the cost of downloading spam itself.

The software giant also says it's complying with its privacy policy because users can choose whether to be on the Infospace directory or not, but this misses the point. It's easy to overlook the relevant box and users can easily end up with a listing they really don't want.

Everyone would be a lot happier if Microsoft dropped the default registration to Infospace, and only a cynic would suggest that Microsoft's commercial relationship with a directory firm, judged more important than the needs of its Hotmail users, is preventing it doing so. Surely not. ®

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