January 16, 2001, 10:48 AM — Net Prophet
ARE PRIVACY POLICIES worth the bits they're printed with? Online privacy policies are inherently mutable things: Changes in management, company direction, or ownership can mean that what's the rule today is just a memory tomorrow. This enrages privacy advocates and befuddles consumers. So maybe it's time to draw up some privacy policies with teeth.
Privacy is a perennial sore spot with consumers. Until we live in a transparent society where the word "privacy" is as anachronistic as "horseless carriage,"consumers will have mixed feelings about data gathering. It's a fundamental law of Internet commerce that privacy and convenience are at loggerheads: To gain one, you must sacrifice the other.
E-commerce companies find themselves in a bind. E-commerce is plagued by complaints of a cold, nonpersonal experience. Where's the love? But a company can't very well give you a personalized experience without knowing something about you.
Take two recent examples. When Toysmart went belly-up, there was a fire sale on its assets. One of those assets was the data it had about its customers. That data went on the auction block along with the rest of the company, which caused a great hue and cry from outraged privacy advocates. The Federal Trade Commission started making unwanted advances and now Toysmart and Disney -- Toysmart's parent company -- are trying to make nice.
But it does raise the question of how consumers can make an educated decision on data gathering if the rules of the game themselves are a moving target. It's like learning to play soccer and showing up on the field only to discover it's suddenly all right to tackle players. Actually, it's more like being in the middle of the soccer game when the tackling starts.