On-line services becoming entangled in rights to privacy

October 19, 1994|By Todd Copilevitz | Todd Copilevitz,Dallas Morning News

Are you fair game when you log on to a computer network?

Do you expect to be anonymous wherever you go on-line? You're not. Do you believe the big computer on the other end can track your every move? It can.

Does the company that owns that network, the same company that sends you a bill for your time, have the right to tell others what it knows about you?

America Online's million-plus members are grappling with just that question after service president Steve Case informed them the company would now "rent" its membership list to direct-mail marketers. In the process, AOL has touched on the dark fears many have about using an on-line service, that by doing so they are somehow opening themselves to intrusion in very personal matters.

How many on-line users haven't ventured into a chat area or discussion board on the assurance no one would ever know? Think about all that's sitting on your computer hard drive: your checkbook, personal correspondence, maybe a few graphics files that you'd rather people not know you've downloaded.

What AOL actually proposed to do -- selling its customer list -- is nothing new, mind you. Companies have been doing it for years, based on warranty registration cards. Other networks have been too.

But Mr. Case walked right into a buzz saw of controversy with his announcement to members Oct. 1.

Those who wanted off the list had to go to a new section on-line (keyword Marketing Prefs) and fill out an electronic form. It was all rather innocuous, deep in a monthly update to members on coming new features.

Three days later Mr. Case got a rude awakening from U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass. The chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance questioned whether AOL members had been adequately notified of the network's intention to sell their names, addresses and computer preferences.

They hadn't. And Mr. Case quickly conceded as much.

Members' first inkling came at the start of October. But AOL was advertising its list to the direct mail industry in September, for $100 per thousand.

"In retrospect, I think we made some mistakes," Mr. Case said in an Oct. 6 follow-up letter to members. Topping the list was failure to tell members up front.

The other big problem is that AOL, in essence, is forcing members to take action if they don't want to be listed. In any other situation, you have the choice up front.

When CompuServe members enroll, they're asked specifically if they want to be included in mailing lists. They don't have to learn a keyword and search out the option if they want off. Only 5 percent say no, according to CompuServe. But the point is that )) everyone is asked.

Prodigy, GEnie and Imagination Network all have strict policies precluding the sale of member information. But that doesn't mean they're above the fray.

For years Prodigy has battled rumors that the service was somehow examining the files kept on members' hard drives. The rumor started when people took a close look at a file created in sign-up called stage.dat.

The reality is the file is just reserved space for software upgrades on members' hard drives. But in reserving the space for its customers, Prodigy doesn't erase the old information. So people were finding pieces of their old letters, spread sheets and other files.

GEnie, which is pushing hard to join the big three networks, can track a member's movements at all times on-line. Spokeswoman Barb Byro says the information is used only if a customer asks for an audit to justify a bill. It's never used for marketing, internally or externally, she says.

It's not all that different from catalog merchants who sell lists detailing what kinds of stuff you buy or how much you spend. But on-line services know they're playing under a different set of rules, says Mark Walsh, GEnie's president and chairman of the Interactive Services Association.

"While we can track every step you take on-line, if we should is a very gray issue," he says.

Most privacy laws were written long before electronic mail and on-line services were conceived. While we're struggling with these issues, the cyberspace terrain is changing so rapidly that new issues crop up daily.

Does the network have to tell us every question it's asking our PC?

The real problem is that society has never been down a road like this before.

"We are blazing complete new trails in the psyche of the American consumer," Mr. Walsh says. "It's better that we have this kind of discussion and examine all our goals now, rather than later."

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