EBay, Amazon hit with privacy complaints

Officials at Junkbusters Corp. and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) held a joint news conference late Tuesday morning in which they discussed their decisions to file separate complaints with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission against eBay Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. because of privacy concerns.

Green Brook, N.J.-based Junkbusters filed a complaint raising questions about eBay’s policies; Washington-based EPIC filed a complaint about Amazon.com.

In the new conference, Junkbusters President Jason Catlett said he has 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 said that in its privacy policy’s summary, eBay says it will turn over personal data to outside agencies only when absolutely necessary. However, the more detailed policy states that eBay will turn over such information at its discretion and without a warrant or subpoena, Catlett said.

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

EBay spokesperson 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.

Following Catlett’s presentation, EPIC deputy counsel Chris Hoofnagle charged that Amazon.com is in violation of the U.S. federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of 1998. Hoofnagle said that the toy section of Amazon.com constitutes a Web site designed to attract children, which would put it under jurisdiction of COPPA.

EPIC charged in the complaint that children under age 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.

EPIC 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 will improve compliance across the Web, he said.

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

Later, Amazon.com spokesman Bill Curry said in a telephone interview that the EPIC charges are untrue because COPPA does 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 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 was directed toward 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 allows 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.