EDITORIAL: Steal This Privacy Policy

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Clearly, if a company says it will not share customer data under any circumstances, then it must not, even in the case of bankruptcy. But since Toysmart.com executives felt compelled to even make that claim in their privacy policy in the first place, it speaks volumes about the ridiculous situation in which online merchants find themselves.


This is a database of people's toy purchases. Unless Toysmart was selling children's books like "How to Cope with Inheriting Daddy's Mental Illness," it's difficult to see where the sensitivity lies in its customer file.


Customers want good, inexpensive stuff, which takes lots of data -- not the supposed friction-free commerce that never materialized. Meanwhile, public opinion is being swayed by finger-wagging, politically correct gas bags who treat marketers like misbehaving school boys who must be whipped daily just for good measure.


Hence, a bunch of privacy policies that swear never to divulge laughably harmless information. "But, what if someone finds out I bought a Furby last year?!"


Here's a suggestion for what Toysmart's privacy policy should have said:


"In order to keep prices as low as possible, while making as much money as possible -- we are, after all, in business -- we exchange information with other merchants. The idea behind buying and selling customer information is to help merchants reach quality prospects more efficiently, while creating multiple sources of revenue.


"By making a purchase on this Web site, you've identified yourself as one heck of a quality prospect.


"Going after quality prospects by sharing data is one of the many things we do as we continue down what we believe is the path to profitability, and at the same time employing a few hard-working, tax-paying citizens along the way. If you're a shareholder in our company, you're probably glad to hear this -- especially with those other online merchants going belly up because they thought mass advertising employing politically correct, offend-no-one tactics rather than direct marketing was the way to go.


"If, however, you're a paranoid freak who believes there is grave danger in someone inadvertently finding out how many Barbie accessories you bought last year, please exit this site now and don't ever come back.


In fact, isn't there some demonstration in Seattle you should be attending? Or maybe French farmer Jose Bove, who damaged part of a McDonald's with a tractor in protest of "McGlobalization," could use your help.


"In any case, we certainly don't want to invade what you consider to be private information, so please just leave us alone, and we'll leave you alone. After all, the world is still large enough that we can co-exist peacefully without ever crossing paths."


The big lesson from Toysmart? Although posting a privacy policy claiming you will never share customer data with other companies may be the politically correct thing to do, it's not necessarily a smart business policy.


And while the mainstream press drones incessantly about "public outcry" over the privacy issue, most consumers have no problem with companies keeping a database of their purchasing behavior. They simply don't like the idea of companies using their names to make money without their knowledge.


According to research cited in this space before by Yankelovich Partners, 80 percent of 16 to 33 year olds; 62 percent of 34 to 52 year olds; and 69 percent of people 53 and older will share their online activities with marketers in return for customized information.


Boy, for a society so concerned with privacy, people certainly offer information about themselves quickly enough for very little benefit.


And even though Forrester Research claims 92 percent of consumers are "concerned," while 67 percent are "very concerned" about the misuse of their personal information online, the "are-you-concerned" nature of the question is so loaded, the results are useless.


More telling survey questions might be "in between your teen-ager wrecking the car and the argument you had with your husband today, did online privacy even cross your mind once before we asked you about it?"


Or "if a company can make 12 cents selling information surrounding your Hot Wheels buying history to Mattel, will you really care?"
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