Corporate Privacy Policies Often Not in Your Best Interest

Our privacy is continuously under attack. But if you believe Sun Microsystems' CEO and President, Scott McNealy, our privacy has been long gone anyway. McNealy made that comment last year, and although in some ways that statement is true, to hold that blanket statement out as all-inclusive is incredibly short-sighted. I don't know about McNealy, but I have no trouble enjoying many private aspects to my life, and I intend to keep it that way.

Nonetheless, corporate America, as well as corporations in other countries, are in direct control of much of our privacy. And that privacy is being chipped away bit by bit. The bigger the company, the more serious the privacy invasion can become. Take America Online (AOL), for example. AOL provides Internet service to millions of people around the world. AOL knows your every move on the net because it tracks that information as you surf using its service.

Tracking that data is not so bad; it's what the company does with the information that bothers me. As you know, AOL's privacy policy is under attack from industry critics. And as you might also know, AOL users must complete an Opt Out form to keep their private information private. AOL instituted the controversial privacy policy last year.

Under the service policy, AOL users must fill out the privacy form every year if they expect to maintain control of their private information. AOL rudely makes the assumption that if a person doesn't fill out the form, they thereby agree to let AOL share their name, address, Web surfing and electronic buying habits, and other private data with other companies at AOL's discretion.

Privacy advocates (myself included) see AOL's approach as far less than ethical. We think that companies should bear the burden of receiving proof that they can distribute a person's private information. David Sobel, attorney for the privacy advocacy group Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), called AOL's approach to privacy appalling. But Sobel isn't surprised. And neither am I.

The bottom line is that companies make millions of dollars every year by selling your private information. And in the case of AOL, users actually pay for that exposure by subscribing to AOL's services. That approach just doesn't make sense unless you're OK with having your name, private information, and personal habits plastered all over the world at your expense.

With so many ISPs providing adequate net access complete with roaming features, a person shouldn't have to tolerate the type of actions AOL takes. Why should a person have to opt out of information sharing? Why can't AOL reverse the default assumption in its policy? Maybe AOL's policy is merely a smokescreen to pacify the masses. The policy clearly benefits AOL, not the consumer.

So how long will it take for other major companies to follow AOL? Are other companies willing to risk their reputation over privacy concerns? It's up to you, the consumer, to let companies know how you feel about their privacy practices. And as you know, often the best way to get a company's attention is by tugging on its purse strings. You get the picture. Until next time, have a great week.

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