Editorial: The Jason Catlett Tax? Hmmm ... Has a Nice Ring

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A knee-jerk letter from privacy advocate Jason Catlett to the Federal Trade Commission last week took privacy hysteria to stratospheric new heights.


In the letter, Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., Green Brook, NJ, asks Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, to investigate whether certain parts of eBay's revised privacy policy constitute "unfair or deceptive trade practices."


Catlett's beef with the policy, which is scheduled to take effect March 19, mainly concerns a new passage that essentially says that if there are any inconsistencies in privacy representations anywhere else on the site, that the privacy policy in question alone governs eBay's privacy practices. The passage is in all upper case. It is the only one given such treatment, so it practically yells the information.


If eBay is to be believed, and there's no reason not to, Catlett's letter is a classic case of "no good deed goes unpunished."


According to eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove, eBay is trying to respond to FTC prodding of companies to make their privacy practices clearer.


Whereas many Web sites in, say, their FAQ section simply lift language from their privacy policy, no matter how impenetrable it is, eBay is going to try to explain things plainly and briefly wherever possible. The attempt at user-friendly copy where possible will require different verbiage than is contained in the official privacy policy.


Hence the passage that says when in doubt, check the official privacy policy.


"We're acknowledging that in our attempts to achieve some brevity, there may be some confusion," Pursglove said. "We wanted users to understand that our intent is to urge them to always return to the privacy policy if there is any question about privacy issues mentioned elsewhere on the site."


In any case, Catlett gives a supposed "concrete" example of "how grossly unfair" eBay's revised privacy policy is.


First, the auction site lays out what it claims are its basic privacy principles:


"Our core privacy principles remain the same throughout eBay worldwide:


· We do not sell or rent your information to third parties.


· We do not give your personally identifiable information to advertisers.


· We let you select how you may be contacted by us when you join our community.


· We use safe, secure encryption technology to protect your personally identifiable information.


· We have no tolerance for spam (unsolicited, commercial email)."


Seems pretty straightforward. Catlett apparently doesn't think so, however.


"An average prospective bidder seeking comfort without too much effort might readily gain from this page the impression that her privacy on eBay is assured," his letter says. "She would get a very different picture if she discovered within the thousands of words in the harder-to-read but controlling policy ... a separate appendix containing a matrix of dozens of disclosures of various kinds of information to multiple categories of recipients."


Actually, she wouldn't get a different picture at all. Only a more detailed one laid out very clearly using a chart -- a chart for god's sake.


What's more, below the core privacy principles are links to an easy-to-read overview, the chart and eBay's complete policy. The complete policy is long, but refreshingly bereft of legalese. Privacy policies simply don't come any clearer than this one.


Don't believe me?


Check for yourself at http://pages.ebay.com/help/community/png-priv2.html.


Meanwhile, Catlett told senior editor Kristen Bremner that he found no inconsistencies between eBay's core privacy principles and the table, and that he hadn't really looked. He hadn't really looked.


Frankly, Catlett's an endearing guy, and he makes this job interesting.


But this eBay shenanigan crosses into the land of the ridiculous. It is a frivolous stunt that should be recognized as such.


The thought that even a low-level federal employee may spend even 10 seconds considering this request is an offense to taxpayers everywhere.


As a result, here is an idea: tax Jason Catlett for the government resources he wastes with these frivolous actions.


The Catlett tax could work like NFL rules governing the use of instant replay to challenge referees' calls made on the field. To limit frivolous challenges, if the call on the field is upheld, the challenging coach's team loses a timeout.


(For non-football fans, I'm told Scrabble has a similar rule.)


Likewise, every letter Catlett sends to the FTC requesting an investigation that results in no action should cost him, say, $5,000.


That way, Catlett will stop and think before firing off a letter to the FTC. And the FTC can spend the resulting saved resources investigating real fraud.


Think Congress will buy it?


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