Editorial: Privacy Laws Near

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New York marketers can expect to see a state consumer privacy protection law in the all-too-near future. That's what state Attorney General Eliot Spitzer said this week as he announced two settlements with The Chase Manhattan Corp. and Infobeat.

For consumer-oriented Spitzer, privacy is a front-burner issue.

Although Chase denied any wrongdoing, it agreed to stop sharing information about its customers with nonaffiliated businesses unless it receives permission. The state said Chase hadn't made it clear that it was selling customers' financial information to third-party businesses, mostly telemarketers hawking everything from magazine subscriptions and bird seed to pesticide services, according to published reports. The other settlement said Infobeat had shared its customers' information with other parties without their permission, contrary to its own policies. Infobeat had conceded that some information had gotten into the wrong hands because of software problems.

Spitzer said technology is responsible for this privacy invasion, placing "all of us in an electronic fishbowl in which our habits, tastes and activities are watched and recorded." And don't be surprised if Hillary or Rudy jump on the privacy bandwagon in their fight for the Senate.

Meanwhile, online ad network DoubleClick confirmed it is tracking Web users by name and address, though executives prefer to call it personalization. Call it what you will, privacy advocates are screaming "Big Brother" and threatening a formal complaint with the Federal Trade Commission next month over the information DoubleClick can integrate with its Abacus Direct database of more than 88 million U.S. homes.

If the complaint amounts to anything, marketers have only themselves to blame. By and large, the DM community hasn't listened to consumers and it hasn't spoken to them. The industry has done little to promote the benefits of database marketing to individuals or special interest groups, so it looks like there's something to hide. While silence may be the result of marketers' fear of public backlash over practices that have been in place for years, it also could be because a dialogue is counter to their instincts. "Direct marketers are more like hunters than farmers," said Junkbusters president Jason Catlett. "Their first instinct is to pick up a gun and shoot something."

Say what you want about Catlett, he has a point. Maybe it's time to start tilling a little soil.

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