DoubleClick Relents

SAN FRANCISCO (03/03/2000) - Privacy advocates are catching a whiff of the sweet smell of victory on the Web.

Thursday, after weeks of controversy and criticism, online marketing firm DoubleClick Inc. doubled back on its plans to closely monitor online buyers' behavior. The company planned to merge customers' Web surfing habits with their personally identifiable information.

The change of heart was greeted warmly by privacy advocates, who agreed to end their campaign against DoubleClick.

"This is an important step for Internet privacy," says Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology. "We have begun to turn the tide."

DoubleClick's chief executive officer, Kevin O'Connor, admits in a statement that the company blundered by pursuing that path without first putting a clear policy in place.

"It is clear from these discussions that I made a mistake by planning to merge names with anonymous user activity across Web sites in the absence of government and industry privacy standards," O'Connor says in his statement. "We commit today, that until there is agreement between government and industry on privacy standards, we will not link personally identifiable information to anonymous user activity across Web sites."

DoubleClick bought marketing firm Abacus Direct in November. The combined data-gathering of both companies allows DoubleClick to link its own information about customers' Web surfing habits with Abacus's database of customer phone numbers, addresses, and other personal identification. While the result is a gold mine for marketers, it is a nightmare for privacy advocates.

Privacy Advocates Rally

Aside from creating a public uproar, DoubleClick's controversial form of information-gathering spurred a Federal Trade Commission investigation and several lawsuits. One suit involves a California woman who accused DoubleClick of unlawfully obtaining and selling consumers' personal information and Internet cookies to identify users and track their movements on the Internet.

The suit also alleges that DoubleClick tracks and records your visit to a site, in addition to any personal information transmitted on the sites. The trapped data could include your name, age, address, shopping patterns, and your financial information.

Media attention, consumer concerns, and advocacy groups' involvement prompted DoubleClick to reconsider, suggest representatives of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

"There are many lawsuits pending, and I have a feeling that they made a difference," says Mulligan, CDT counsel. "That's not the core of [DoubleClick's business], so why should they destroy their brand name? They can still do personalization, just in a way that is privacy-friendly."

She says the CDT welcomes DoubleClick's promise of more concern for privacy but will continue to raise public awareness of privacy issues online.

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