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FTC blesses Amazon's privacy sleight-of-hand

Never say 'never'

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The US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has officially disdained a petition from Internet watchdogs the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) and Junkbusters, which asked that Amazon be investigated for deceiving customers when it changed its privacy policy last September.

At issue was the company's sudden decision to cease allowing customers to opt out of having their personal details shared with marketing outfits and Amazon partners. Previously, customers could opt out by sending a blank e-mail message to 'never@amazon.com'.

The word 'never', the December petition reasoned, gave customers a reasonable expectation that their opt-out decision would be honored permanently.

The FTC reply, dated 24 May by Commissioner Jodie Bernstein, regards this as a lot of theoretical nonsense.

"Although Amazon's revisions to its privacy policy are subject to various interpretations," Bernstein writes, foot pressed hard against the soft pedal, "it does not appear that Amazon has violated Section 5 of the FTC Act by making material changes in its information collection and disclosure practices." (our emphasis)

The idea of 'material change' is crucial here -- the operative principle being, 'no harm, no foul'. Amazon officials cheerfully assured the FTC that the company would not share customer information with outsiders, and the FTC cheerfully accepted that as reason enough to drop the matter.

A win/win situation if ever there was one. ®

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