FRAMINGHAM (03/10/2000) - When the 34-year-old top consumer advocate and legal watchdog for one of America's largest cities feels its time for a career change, what does he do? Like many people his age, he goes to a dot-com. But not just any dot-com: Jules Polonetsky is DoubleClick Inc.'s new privacy czar.
DoubleClick is the New York-based online advertising firm now being investigated by the Federal Trade Commission for its handling of consumer data.
The FTC investigation followed complaints and a lawsuit alleging DoubleClick was tracking individuals' surfing habits and matching that information with information in an off-line marketing database. DoubleClick recently suspended that practice and posted a lengthy statement of policy regarding privacy on its Web site. This week, DoubleClick announced it hired Polonetsky as its "chief privacy officer" and was forming a privacy advisory board headed by former New York State Attorney General Bob Abrams.
Polonetsky declined to comment on legal actions involving DoubleClick. In November last year, several Internet watchdog groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, Junkbusters Corp. and the Privacy Journal, said DoubleClick's acquisition of catalog research firm Abacus Direct Corp. could result in "far-reaching invasions of privacy." In January, a California woman filed a complaint alleging DoubleClick unlawfully obtained and sold consumers' personal information.
By the company's own admission, DoubleClick's November 1999 acquisition of Abacus Direct gave it control of the largest proprietary database of consumer buying behavior used for target marketing purposes on the Internet and through direct mail. This month, after the FTC investigation, DoubleClick CEO Kevin O'Connor publicly stated the company wouldn't go through with plans to merge information it had acquired about consumers' online activities with Abacus' database of personal information, calling his intentions to do so "a mistake."
Polonetsky didn't express concern about the circumstances of his new job.
Instead, he said the creation of a chief privacy officer post "demonstrates that the company is committed to meeting the highest expectations of consumer protection" rather than being a defensive move to quiet criticism.
Polonetsky acknowledged that "the company has challenges" ahead, but said he has the appropriate background to deal with such challenges. As consumer affairs commissioner, Polonetsky enforced at the local level FTC guidelines for consumer disclosure practices by advertisers. He also implemented a Web site for complaints against online businesses, which revealed that the number of such complaints "has increased considerably."
Key to reducing consumer dissatisfaction, Polonetsky said, is to increase consumer education about Web use while ensuring that companies are responsive to the consumer's need for privacy. "Sites that earn revenue from advertising should be a good thing," he said. "Businesses and consumers need to reach a happy medium."
Polonetsky added that as the leading player in online advertising, DoubleClick should be "the industry leader in online privacy" and that he plans to "make a strong case for an appropriate direction for the future" while at DoubleClick.
When asked if he saw his career at DoubleClick as a long-term one, Polonetsky said, "I've had a different job every two or three years."
Polonetsky was appointed to the consumer affairs post in 1998 by New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Polonetsky said a candidate to succeed him hasn't been announced.