Though DoubleClick has managed to stave off the wrath of privacy advocates by promising not to merge anonymous online click-stream data with personally identifiable offline data from its Abacus Alliance database, it is treading into the territory of e-mail appending, another hot-button privacy issue.
“We have not rolled out the appending service yet,” said Jonathan Shapiro, senior vice president at DoubleClick/Abacus Online. “It is in the testing phase.”
E-mail appending, the practice of adding e-mail addresses to a company's file of existing offline customers, is reviled by anti-spam activists. According to most privacy advocates, the existence of an offline relationship with a customer is meaningless. They maintain that without opt-in permission to contact a customer via e-mail, any e-mail sent to an appended e-mail address is spam.
However, when DoubleClick's Abacus Online appending service makes its debut, it may be able to circumvent the charges of spam that have plagued other would-be e-mail appending service providers.
While some e-mail appending services scour the Internet for e-mail addresses or are compiled from unknown sources, the Abacus Online appending service does not. The e-mail addresses that Abacus appends are 100 percent opt-in registrants at DoubleClick's NetDeals.com online shopping Web site who have agreed to receive third-party e-mail.
The privacy statement at the NetDeals site says in part: “If you opt in (specifically choose) to receive e-mail offers about new products and services available from our trusted third-party marketing partners, we will combine your personal information with other personal information about you that is available to us, such as past purchase history, in order [to] provide you with e-mail notices and offers that will be geared towards your individual preferences and tastes.”
DoubleClick said that more than 5 million Internet users have registered their e-mail addresses and opted in to third-party pitches at NetDeals, giving the initiative the critical mass and permission needed to be viable and legitimate.
“This is certainly a gray area,” said anti-spammer Rodney Joffe, president and founder of Centergate Research Group LLC, Tempe, AZ. “It sounds like they cover themselves and what they're doing is acceptable.”
Also, DoubleClick requires its append clients to give customers the ability to opt out of future e-mail communications on every e-mail sent.
Although Shapiro acknowledged that there are problems with some appending services, he thinks the Abacus Online service has covered all the bases.
“First of all, it's only for people who have declared an interest and a willingness to buy because they have actually been a customer of the merchant,” he said. “Second, they have said that they are willing to hear from third parties, so they're OK getting commercial e-mail. And lastly, they can opt out at any time.”
Still, at least one direct marketer finds fault with the Abacus Online appending service.
“I think that NetDeals.com has to send out the initial e-mail and offer the customers the chance to opt out before appending the name,” said Roy Schwedelson, CEO of Worldata/WebConnect, Boca Raton, FL.
Shapiro said Abacus Online recommends that its append clients mention the connection to NetDeals in their first e-mail contact with the customers.
Schwedelson, however, said this is not enough. He pointed out that a person whose name was appended to 200 catalogers' files could receive multiple messages from each one.
Despite Joffe's assessment that the Abacus Online appending service seems to be legitimate, he noted that once e-mail addresses have been appended, opting out at the NetDeals site would not carry over to any of the other companies that a customer's e-mail address had been appended to.
In the absence of a clear consensus about e-mail appending within the industry, Shapiro said that the Abacus Online appending process was designed with privacy protection in mind.
“When industry standards from bodies such as the Responsible Electronic Communication Alliance — of which DoubleClick is a founding member — are set, we will clearly participate in those and follow industry guidelines,” he said.