Pre-Checked Boxes

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The San Francisco Chronicle irked Jim Sparkman so many times over the years that he created ChronWatch, a media watchdog Web site, in 2001. Sparkman told me the other day that business columnist David Lazarus holds a special place in his heart. "I need to get on with something else in my life, but David keeps writing columns and I can't stand it," he said. "He poses as a business writer and he knows absolutely nothing about business." Privacy is a favorite topic for Lazarus and the Chronicle. "It's one of the things the Chronicle has convinced themselves is terribly important," Sparkman said. "I personally don't think anybody's invading my privacy."


Last week, Lazarus wrote about how Cnet Network enrolls people into its TechSpecials program so they'll be served up to marketers who are "fishing for tech-savvy potential customers." What got him worked up was Cnet's use of a pre-checked box when signing people up for its free newsletters. Would it be better if the box were not already checked? Yes. Companies should work to get their own consent. But there was no trick about the box. If you don't want marketing messages, you can easily uncheck it - I tried it the other day and it worked.


However, as Lazarus admitted, this is "not a new trend." He apologized for bringing the whole thing up again at the end of his column: "As I say, this isn't new and there's nothing illegal going on here. It's just one of those things that's good to be looked into every now and then." I think he was trying to say: "I couldn't find anything else to write about today and I had a deadline to meet." In full disclosure, Lazarus mentioned that Hearst Corp., which owns the Chronicle, Cosmopolitan and other titles, rents its customer information to bring in extra money. He also criticized Hearst for offering "no fewer than 34 lists of subscribers, including a list of readers making more than $75,000 per year and a list featuring people with children." I guess Lazarus would rather have completely untargeted marketing campaigns arriving in his mailbox every day. I'm sure he would find that less annoying.


Speaking of privacy policies, the Chronicle's Web site says: "If there is a possibilty (note, that's their typo, not mine) that we use non-aggregate information for marketing purposes or to sell to third parties, we will notify users at the point at which we collect the information and allow users to opt-out." Well, it had better not be in the form of a pre-checked box.


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