UPDATE: FTC Drops Investigation of DoubleClick

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The Federal Trade Commission ended its investigation into the data practices of online advertising firm DoubleClick Inc., much to the chagrin of privacy advocates.

"Based on this investigation, it appears to staff that DoubleClick never used or disclosed consumers' personally identifiable information for purposes other than those disclosed in its privacy policy," Joel Winston, acting associate director at the FTC's division of financial practices, said in a letter sent to DoubleClick's attorney Jan. 22. "Specifically it appears that DoubleClick did not combine PII from Abacus Direct with clickstream collected on client Web sites."

The investigation began in February last year to determine whether DoubleClick, New York, merged its offline consumer data with its anonymous online consumer data.

Although DoubleClick had planned to merge the data when it acquired Abacus Direct in 1999, privacy concerns and a lack of industry standards forced it to refrain from doing so.

As part of the agreement leading to the closure of the FTC investigation, DoubleClick said it would modify its privacy policy to include disclosure of its use of Web bugs, creation of an opt-out for cookies and clarification of its Internet address finder e-mail practices.

According to a DoubleClick spokeswoman, the firm already started drafting the changes and planned to have them in place by late February or early March.

Even so, at least one privacy advocate said DoubleClick got off easy.

"The FTC always concentrates on deception rather than unfairness, and they found that DoubleClick's practices had not been deceptive, but they're still objectionable from a privacy point of view," said Jason Catlett, president of privacy group Junkbusters, Green Brook, NJ.

Also, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Washington, which filed the initial complaint along with the FTC, was reported to be disappointed by the termination of the investigation.

"The FTC decided to lighten their caseload, and DoubleClick got a letter that can be paraded to investors and judges to try to convince them that they're not such bad guys after all," Catlett said.

DoubleClick is still being investigated by officials in Michigan and New York, which began their probes in February last year.

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