Amazon and eBay hit with privacy complaints

Officials at Junkbusters and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) held a joint news conference yesterday in which...

Officials at Junkbusters and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (Epic) held a joint news conference yesterday in which they discussed their decisions to file separate complaints with the US Federal Trade Commission against eBay and because of privacy concerns.

Junkbusters president Jason Catlett said he had problems with eBay's "two-tiered" privacy policy, which he called deceptive.

"The short, cheery version [of the policy] which is presented to the visitor is not representative of the longer more detailed version," he said. 

Catlett added that in its privacy policy's summary, eBay said it would turn over personal data to outside agencies only when absolutely necessary. However, he said, the more detailed policy stated that eBay would turn over such information at its discretion and without a warrant or subpoena. 

Catlett also said that eBay did not tell users that their e-mail addresses might be used by others to spam them and, despite efforts to protect data online at the website, there is a substantial risk to any private and financial information registered on eBay. 

EBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove rejected Catlett's contention that the online auctioneer engaged in any deception. 

"The only deception here is the deception that there are two documents," Pursglove said. "The summary is exactly that, a summary." 

Pursglove said eBay has a privacy statement, with a summary, a chart outlining privacy and an FAQ page. 

Following Catlett's presentation, EPIC deputy counsel Chris Hoofnagle charged that is in violation of the federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998. Hoofnagle said that the toy section of constituted a website designed to attract children, which would put it under jurisdiction of COPPA. 

EPIC charged in the complaint that children under 13 can enter private information on the site that can then be viewed by others. He questioned an apparent lack of parental control over the information some children are providing, such as their names, addresses and ages, and charged that Amazon could and should do a better job of shielding children's information under COPPA. 

Hoofnagle said a number of other large retailers who sell toys conduct practices similar to Amazon's, but EPIC chose to target the company because of its leadership role in online retailing. 

"Amazon is creating a race to the bottom," Hoofnagle said. In order to compete with Amazon, other retailers must adopt its practices. Forcing Amazon to change those practices would improve compliance across the web, he said. 

Representatives of eBay and Amazon were allowed to listen in to the news conference via telephone but were prevented from speaking by the ground rules of the event. 

Later, spokesman Bill Curry said that the EPIC charges are untrue because COPPA did not apply to the online retailer. 

"Amazon is a place where adults with credit cards can buy things both for themselves and children," he said. Curry also denied Hoofnagle’s charges that any aspect of the site could be considered to be aimed at children. 

In the news conference, Hoofnagle had said that the colours and typeface used in Amazon’s toy section made it clear that the toy portion of the site targeted children. 

"COPPA is directed to sites directed at children," Curry said. "We are clearly not a site directed at children." 

Curry also denied that Amazon allowed visitors to post their names and addresses on its site. He said that in the course of writing reviews, some people do publish their own names and addresses, but Amazon removes those names.

In addition, Amazon has software designed to allow children under 13 to post reviews anonymously.

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