About.com just got bought by Barry Diller. What happens to your data?

Registered at About.com? You've just joined the InterActive Corp family -- and so has your data. Meet your new siblings, Dictionary.com, iWon, and Smiley Central.

Here’s one of the biggest problems with Internet data collection. No matter who’s doing the collecting or how responsible that company is about protecting your personal information, when that company is sold or acquired all bets are off. Your data – the most important asset of most Internet companies -- may be suddenly unprotected.

What happens when Company A, which offers its users fairly strict privacy protection, is acquired by Company B, which does not? We’re about to find out.

The New York Times Company just sold its About.com group to Barry Diller’s InterActive Corp (IAC) for $300 million. IAC is one of the quiet giants of the Internet, operating more than 40 subsidiaries, including such well-known sites as Match.com, The Daily Beast, Ask.com, and CollegeHumor.

About.com is pretty good about protecting its users’ privacy. For example, its privacy policy states:

We contract with other companies to provide services on our behalf, including credit-card and billing processing, shipping, e-mail distribution, list processing and promotions management. We provide these companies only with the information they need to perform their services. These service providers are restricted from using this data in any way other than to provide services for us, and they may not share, resell or use the data for their own marketing purposes.

In other words, About.com doesn’t sell your data to third parties or share it with affiliates or “trusted marketing partners.” It even shields your email address and other personal information from advertisers and marketers.

IAC? Not so good. Here’s what its privacy policy says:

We may share personal information with:

* Service providers, such as credit-card payment processors, performing services on our behalf;

* Other IAC businesses;

* Other businesses with which we partner or which we carefully select to offer you products, services, and promotions through our website or offline; and

* Other third parties in limited circumstances, such as complying with legal requirements, preventing fraud, and protecting the safety of our users.

What other IAC businesses could have access to your data? Try Dictionary.com, which was cited by the Wall Street Journal as depositing more tracking cookies than any large site on the Internet – some 223 of them during one test in July 2010.

Then there’s iWon.com, which sells your contact information to marketers in exchange for the chance to play silly online games. Or PopularScreensavers.com, which allows you to download free screen savers in exchange for installing the MyWebSearch toolbar in your browser. There’s also Smiley Central, Cursor Mania, Zwinkies, My Fun Cards, etc. In short, a whole lot of sites I’d classify as the bottom feeders of the Web that offer free stuff in exchange for your information.

Granted, this doesn’t mean IAC will share your personal data with all of these sites, just that it can if it wants to.

When IAC acquired dating site OkCupid last year, for example, I asked CEO Sam Yagan what that meant in terms of member privacy. OkCupid is a particularly sensitive case; the dating site allows its users to ask other OkCupid members questions on any topic, up to and including drug use habits, religious practices, and sexual proclivities. It gets very personal very quickly.  

Yagan said that, for the time being at least, OkC would continue to abide by its original privacy policies. In fact, it appears to have adopted parts of the IAC privacy policy, but not the bits about sharing data with other IAC companies – at least, not yet.

A few months later, Stanford privacy researcher Jonathan Mayer discovered that OkCupid was sharing all kinds of information with third party ad networks, such as user names, drug habits and more. (It wasn’t the only site sharing personal data, just one of the more egregious.) The ad networks say the collection was unintentional and they discarded that data. Your skepticism may vary.

Bottom line: Whenever a company you know and trust is acquired by a company you don’t know (or don’t trust), caution is always a good idea. The real question is whether it’s safe to share anything with any company online. That one you’ll just have to answer for yourself.

Got a question about social media? TY4NS blogger Dan Tynan may have the answer (and if not, he’ll make something up). Visit his snarky, occasionally NSFW blog eSarcasm or follow him on Twitter: @tynanwrites. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-to’s, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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