*Privacy Groups Request FTC Investigation of Amazon.com

Privacy advocates from the Electronic Privacy Information Center and Junkbusters Corp. have asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate what the two groups allege are deceptive or unfair trade practices by Amazon.com.

The charges stem from changes Amazon made to its privacy policy Aug. 31. Amazon notified its customers of the revision via e-mail but did not detail the changes. The new policy states that Amazon will share data with business partners and that its customer database could be sold as an asset. It also removed the ability of customers to opt out of third-party data sharing.

EPIC and Junkbusters severed their relationships with the online retailer in September based on the changes.

“Our main goal is to remedy a deception, but another goal is to get good privacy for all Amazon customers,” said Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters Corp., Green Brook, NJ.

When Catlett's direct appeal to Jeff Bezos, Amazon's founder/CEO, in mid-September failed to elicit changes in its data practices, Catlett and EPIC officials decided to call upon the FTC.

In a Dec. 4 letter to the FTC, Catlett and EPIC executive director Marc Rotenberg said, “We ask the commission to investigate whether Amazon has deceived consumers in its representations about privacy, particularly regarding the circumstances under which information about consumers and their purchases might be sold or otherwise disclosed.”

Chris Hoofnagle, legislative counsel at EPIC, said, “In the past, Amazon has made representations to customers that would lead them to believe that their information would be secure. Essentially, EPIC and Junkbusters are asking the FTC to compel Amazon to treat customer data consistently with fair information practices.”

The letter claims that Amazon's revised privacy policy reneges on its earlier representation that consumers not wishing to have personal information shared with third parties could opt out of that practice by sending an e-mail to [email protected]

“In this case, I think there is a very clear charge of deception to be answered,” Catlett said. “They used the word `never' — it's a pretty unambiguous word.”

Furthermore, Catlett and Rotenberg recommended that Amazon should not disclose information from consumers who opted out via the “never” e-mail address; that all Amazon customers should be able to have their personal information deleted upon request; that Amazon should tell “never” customers what information has been disclosed about them; and that Amazon should follow the fair information practices of notice, choice, access and security.

Both groups are confident that the FTC will investigate.

Regarding the letter, an FTC spokesperson said, “We will be taking a look at it.”

Paul Misener, Amazon.com vice president of global public policy, addressed the deletion issue in a Sept. 27 response to Catlett's initial letter to Bezos. In part, he said, “The last issue you raised was the deletion of customer information. … This function is not something that our systems were designed to accommodate easily.”

Amazon did not return calls for comment.

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