Column: CNET Privacy Hype Overshadowed Truth

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Score one for the privacy camp for having been able to lead either a CNET reporter or his editor through a story as if he had a bullring in his nose.


On Oct. 8, CNET staff writer Troy Wolverton filed a piece carrying the inaccurate headline, "State Presses Amazon for Privacy Response."


Reporters generally do not write their own headlines. However, the body of the piece led with, "Consumer protection regulators in Massachusetts are urging Amazon.com to respond to criticisms of its privacy policy."


Urging? Well, not quite.


The article concerned a response from the Massachusetts attorney general's office to a letter that privacy advocates Junkbusters Corp. and the Electronic Privacy Information Center sent to attorneys general for 12 states and Washington as well as two consumer protection organizations. In it, they charged that Amazon wasn't doing enough to protect its customers' privacy.


The Massachusetts AG's four-page response addressed the privacy concerns that EPIC and Junkbusters raised and shot them down point by point.


Privacy advocates' beef with Amazon.com boils down to three points spelled out in their letter: "[Amazon.com's] option to sell its customer database wholesale; its refusal to give its customers the right to see all the data it accumulates on them; and its refusal to delete records of past book purchases."


The whole business stems from a change Amazon made to its privacy policy two years ago reserving the right to transfer its customer information to business units it acquires or builds, or transfer it as an asset should it ever be acquired by another company.


Predictably, when Amazon made this sensible move, the fierce protectors of how many "Harry Potter" books we bought flipped out. Ever notice how these guys don't go after charities and political groups? One would think that one's nonprofit affiliations could be far more sensitive than one's book browsing and buying habits. Oh, I forgot, Amazon.com is an eeeevil corporation.


In any case, when the change was first made, EPIC and Junkbusters asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate what the two groups alleged were deceptive or unfair trade practices.


And guess what? The FTC deemed that no action was necessary.


Hence Junkbusters' and EPIC's shenanigan with some state attorneys general and two consumer protection groups.


In September, after talks with the attorneys general, Amazon agreed to make changes in its policy to clarify, for example, when it may share customer information. The Massachusetts AG's letter in response to Junkbusters and EPIC makes this clear.


"Amazon was very responsive to our suggestion that its privacy policy be written to better reflect its actual practices, and now the privacy policy makes it plain that customer information is not a stand-alone asset that could be transferred at Amazon's option," its letter said.


The Massachusetts AG's office also said it did not agree with Junkbusters' and EPIC's suggestion that Amazon should submit to an outside audit of its privacy practices. The letter, however, added that the Massachusetts AG had forwarded the suggestion to Amazon and that it was "interested in learning Amazon's willingness to voluntarily submit to such a review."


Yet, in the CNET piece, the Massachusetts AG was "eager" for a response.


An eager bureaucrat? Not likely.


Junkbusters and EPIC also argue that Amazon should give customers access to information involving their purchases and the opportunity to delete it.


"Our long-standing demands to Amazon on access and deletion have for years been required under the laws of several countries in which Amazon operates, including the United Kingdom and Germany. Amazon.com's treatment of its American customers as second-hand citizens can be seen easily by examing [sic] the privacy policy of amazon.co.uk," their letter said.


Message to Junkbusters and EPIC: America's European ancestors left the Old World because they didn't like the way things were managed. So please don't expect U.S. businesses to voluntarily constrain themselves to practices that result from Europe's penchant for economic self-mutilation.


In any case, the Massachusetts AG's letter said three times that it had forwarded Junkbusters' and EPIC's concerns to Amazon and that it was "interested" in the bookseller's reply.


The CNET piece, however, referred to the Massachusetts AG as pressing, urging, awaiting and eager for a response. Pressing, urging, awaiting and eager are not synonyms for interested.


Why beef about this? Because pieces like CNET's serve no purpose other than to fuel further needless privacy hysteria over a perfectly sensible business practice.


Hyping a story, as this publication has been known to do, is understandable -- but not at the expense of the truth. CNET crossed the line in this case at the expense of accuracy and its credibility.


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