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Gay teen mag closure sparks privacy fears

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The closure of a US website and magazine for gay teens has sparked privacy fears over what will happen to sensitive personal information held by the now defunct publication.

US consumer watchdog the FTC warned owners of XY Magazine and XY.com against the sale or transfer of private user data during bankruptcy proceedings involving the magazine. The FTC added that relaunching the magazine or website using personal information of former subscribers and users would also be problematic, IDG reports.

User-submitted data is listed in the debtor's estate in the New Jersey bankruptcy proceeding against Peter Ian Cummings, editor and founder of the magazine. Back issues of the magazine and XY's user data are among Cummings few assets, the BBC reports.

The XY database is especially sensitive because the magazine and site offered its services to gay teenagers and young adults, many of whom still lived at home and many more who had yet to come out to their friends and family. The magazine held details of 100,000 subscribers and more than 3,000 contributors. It also maintained the addresses and other details on more than 500,000 users who created personal profiles online. As well as names and addresses the site also had the banking details of subscribers.

XY Magazine was a gay male youth-oriented magazine that ran for 11 years up until its closure in 2007, and a further two years as a web-only operation before its eventual demise. The magazine published articles on politics and culture, readers submitted material on subjects such as drug abuse prevention, as well as items on parent-child relations, university applications, among other subjects of interest to its target audience. The average age of its readers was 18.

Two investors in XY - Peter Larson and Martin Shmagin - have asserted ownership of the customer data as part of a possible plan to resurrect the business. The FTC's letter to the duo warning against the sale or re-use of personal data of former XY subscribers can be found here. It says a sale of the personal information, against promises made while XY was up and running, might constitute "unfair or deceptive acts or practices", violations of the FTC Act.

XY privacy policy is simple, explicit, and clear. Subscribers and members were told that their personal information would not be sold, shared, or given away to "anybody." This includes the names, addresses, profile information, and credit card information submitted by subscribers. It also includes unpublished articles that were submitted, for which permission to publish had not yet been secured. Therefore, any sale or transfer of the data to a new company, new owner, or other third party would directly contravene the privacy representations and could constitute a deceptive practice by the original company or its principals.

The FTC argues that continued use of XY users' personal information, even by the existing owner, would not necessarily be consistent with the original purpose for which the data was provided. The watchdog wants the data to be destroyed unless a compelling justification for its retention emerges.

The case raises wider questions of what happens to user-submitted data once a website goes titsup. There are some precedents in this area and more can be expected, especially given the perilous state of the global economy and vague business plans of some Web 2.0 businesses. ®

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