Microsoft Hotmail in New Privacy Flap

This news item explains all the spam. According to an Associated Press (AP) report, Microsoft's Hotmail service sends its subscribers' email addresses, cities, and states to InfoSpace, an Internet White Pages service. InfoSpace then combines this information with telephone numbers and home addresses. The result is a user database that spam advertisers--those advertisers who send bulk mailings--frequently access. Privacy activists say the feature does nothing more than open up your email account to annoying mass mailings. Microsoft, of course, denies this claim.

"We're clearly stating what this is," says MSN Product Manager Sarah Lefko. "It's a consumer benefit." No one seems to know the benefit of this feature, however. A spot check of my own Hotmail account, which I almost never use, revealed 40 such messages, all delivered in the past month. Random subjects include CONGRATULATIONS! YOU'VE WON!, Freedom from DEBT!, and LOSE 10 POUNDS IN 48 HOURS! Microsoft's Inbox Protector catches most of the offending email messages and reroutes them to a different email folder, but that doesn't prevent its companion product, MSN Messenger, from popping up a little dialog box every time a spam message arrives. In short, even unused Hotmail accounts are the target of spam, and it appears that Microsoft's relationship with InfoSpace is at least partly to blame.

Here's how it happens. When you sign up for a Hotmail account, your new address is automatically added to the InfoSpace Internet White Pages unless you clear the checkbox next to that option during registration. Hotmail's privacy statement says that the company won't "sell, lease, or rent" any of the information in its subscriber database, but it's unclear whether InfoSpace pays Microsoft for the privilege of being a default choice during the Hotmail registration process. And neither InfoSpace nor Microsoft is talking. "Clearly, when you're signing up for a new Hotmail account, you have the opportunity to uncheck that \[option\]," Lefko told the AP.

And just as clear, perhaps, is the fact that most Hotmail users aren't technically sophisticated enough to understand the ramifications of this choice, which is already checked for them. When a new user lets this choice remain checked, any Hotmail user can log on to the InfoSpace Web site and access other Hotmail email addresses, 1000 to a page. This process makes it easy for spam advertisers to collect valid email addresses--thus the volume of spam to which most Hotmail users are subjected.

For more information about the Hotmail email address-sharing scandal, visit Bennett Haselton's Web site. Haselton is an Internet activist who originally uncovered the problem. I haven't found a way to remove a Hotmail account from the InfoSpace White Pages after the fact. If you know how to do this, please contact me and I'll provide an update in a later newsletter.

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