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Criticism Prompts EBay Privacy Change

Online auctioneer eBay Inc. bowed to pressure from privacy advocates in posting a change March 20 to its newly revised privacy policy.

The change stems from complaints that a section of its revised policy titled “Conflict of Terms” would nullify summaries of the policy on other parts of the site if they conflicted with the main policy. The new policy took effect March 19 but was available online earlier this month, and as a result came under scrutiny before it went into effect.

EBay claimed the passage it had revised was an attempt to give the company room to summarize the policy in plain English on other parts of the site rather than simply lift language from the main privacy policy whenever it was referenced.

“Our intent all along was to follow the recommendations from the Federal Trade Commission for Internet sites to make their user agreements and privacy policies more user-friendly and less dominated by legalese,” eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said.

The original revision to the passage was in all capital letters and read as follows:

“Please note that this privacy policy alone governs our privacy practices. If there is a conflict between the terms and conditions in this privacy policy and other privacy representations that may appear on our site (e.g. privacy tools, easy to read summaries, charts and P3P statements), you agree that the terms and conditions of this privacy policy shall control.”

The new passage reads:

“It is our goal to make our privacy practices easy to understand. We have created easy-to-read summaries, privacy principles, a privacy chart and are working on privacy enhancing technology to help summarize our full privacy policy. If you have questions about any part of this summary or if you would like more detailed information, we encourage you to review our full privacy policy.”

The new passage essentially says the same thing as the old one, but more clearly, Pursglove said.

He said eBay made the new change after consulting with privacy advocates at TRUSTe, the Center for Democracy and Technology and Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., who started the flap over eBay's policy change by sending a letter to the FTC.

Among the advocates' recommendations:

“Putting the thing in all caps made it a little more alarmist than necessary,” Pursglove said.

However, Catlett contends the new change was substantive.

“The backdown removes a nasty piece of lawyering aimed at severely reducing consumer rights and replaces it with bland PR speak that is probably harmless,” Catlett said in a statement on his Web site, Junkbusters.com.

“eBay should never have attempted to impose on its users such a profoundly anti-consumer contract clause,” he said. “Imagine the scorn that would [be] heaped on an electronics merchant who claimed that in the event of any price discrepancy between their newspaper ad and their catalog, the catalog price would have to be paid. But that is the equivalent of what eBay was trying to do with privacy.”

For its part, eBay plans to continue its effort to provide clear summaries of its policy, Pursglove said, but plans to include a link to the full policy anytime a summarized version appears.

Catlett also posted a statement on his site saying he thinks that the amended policy remains far from satisfactory, noting that eBay did not state it was changing its new policy of letting itself disclose any information about any eBay user at its “sole discretion.”

eBay, however, claims it made that change so it would have the option to disclose information to users who think they have been defrauded by other users.

“The change in that language was designed to continue our efforts to build a site to combat fraud,” Pursglove said. Under the old policy, eBay's hands were tied when users contacted it about possible fraudulent behavior of other users, he said.

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