Editorial: No, Mr. Safire, the Sky Isn't Falling

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"You have zero privacy - get over it." That's New York Times columnist William Safire quoting Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy in his latest rant against marketers and a call for privacy legislation. Safire naively correlates McNealy's comments from two years ago - a moldy, overused quote at best - to Sun's stock price, which has "plunged by two-thirds off its high; investors are trying to get over it." Oh, come on. Almost every company has seen its stock price go down lately.

Safire's column last week, "Age of Consent," raises the usual sky-is-falling scenarios, but, unfortunately, he has a following that believes his every word. He says there are people online who still think their "visits to offbeat sites are anonymous." He mentions consumers being tracked when buying condoms or pregnancy-testing kits at the supermarket. Or while browsing the Net, he says, people may stumble into a pedophile chat room "being monitored by the FBI." I don't think chat rooms of this nature would be collecting name and address registrations, but, more importantly, what does the possibility that someone could inadvertently come under FBI surveillance have to do with marketing or advertising? Last I checked, marketers gathered information to sell things. Sounds like Safire's beef is with the government.

If you're buying something that you don't want others to know about, pay with cash. What marketers must do is to be upfront about the information they collect. Disclose how you are using it, not to manipulate consumers into buying something but to build a trusting, ongoing relationship. "In pious press releases about their reverence for privacy, they place the burden squarely on the customer's back. If you don't want us to sell a profile about you, say the datamongers, it's up to you to direct us to stop. ... The datamongers know that most people don't know the dangers of target marketing and won't take the trouble to protect themselves." The dangers of target marketing? Yeah, getting offers that you're truly interested in. Better not do that, people might actually stop calling it junk mail.

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