Editorial: Make it Pink

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Want to keep the privacy advocates off your back? Change your policy's punctuation.


That's right. Change its punctuation. Oh, and word it very softly.


Those are two of the lessons to be taken from online auctioneer eBay's recent voyage through privacy wacko-land.


EBay last week changed a passage in its lengthy and recently revised policy after privacy advocate Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission complaining about, among other things, the following passage:


"PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS PRIVACY POLICY ALONE GOVERNS OUR PRIVACY PRACTICES. IF THERE IS A CONFLICT BETWEEN THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS IN THIS PRIVACY POLICY AND OTHER PRIVACY REPRESENTATIONS THAT MAY APPEAR ON OUR SITE (e.g. PRIVACY TOOLS, EASY TO READ SUMMARIES, CHARTS AND P3P STATEMENTS), YOU AGREE THAT THE TERMS AND CONDITIONS OF THIS PRIVACY POLICY SHALL CONTROL."


A little bit of legalese there? Sure. Again, we have legal wording creeping into a document designed to keep a company out of court. The gall of those eBay people.


Catlett claimed the document would allow eBay to lull users into a false sense of security with friendlier language in policy summaries on parts of the site, and bait and switch them with the official document.


EBay claimed the passage was an attempt to clear the way for the company to try to summarize its policy on other parts of the site and use easy-to-read language as per FTC prodding, but to let its users know that if there was ever a conflict, the main policy, and the main policy alone, was the governing document.


What's more, far from being buried seven clicks away from the main document in six-point, reversed sans-serif type (which would make it unreadable, for all you Helvetica-loving art directors out there) it was the only passage in the entire document all in capital letters. The words practically screamed.


Catlett's letter drew the usual round of national trade press, prompting eBay to consult with various privacy groups. Among the groups' recommendations, according to eBay, was to revise the policy to be less threatening and use uppercase and lowercase letters. A passage in all caps rings alarms.


God forbid we alarm anybody by posting information people may find important in big letters.


In fact, why don't we start designing privacy policies in friendly pastel colors? Flowers would be nice, too. "From time to time we may share information about you with our marketing partners, for more on specific circumstances under which this may happen, just click on the daffodil to your right."


Better yet, companies should design Web sites to sing their privacy policies to us. And how about to the tune of some happy nonthreatening song like, "My Favorite Things?"


The policy could be titled "Why Are You Worried About Such Stupid Things?"


EBay is one of the few true Internet success stories, which of course, makes it a target.


The company, which generates revenue through listing and selling fees, claimed 42.4 million registered users in its year-end earnings report. Last week its stock was trading at around $57. This compared to say, Amazon.com, which was trading at around $15.


EBay is delivering a service its customers love -- yes, love. It is also delivering comparative value to its shareholders. And anyone who feels the burning need to spend time reading its privacy policy, which includes a table for the reading impaired, can see the company is being about as straightforward and upfront concerning its use of information as a company can be while guarding against a witch hunt.


Far from protecting consumers, by engaging eBay's executives in such trivial nonsense, privacy advocates divert these executives from focusing on real business issues. And to think some of us were naive enough to believe that the dot-com crash and a recession would make people concerned with superficial issues go away.


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