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Monday, April 21, 2003

Lycos Joins the Slippery-Slope-to-Spam Club

It was bad enough that I recently found myself on the receiving end of spammy special offers from Bell Mobility and Bell Canada, respectively, by dint of happening to have a mobile phone subscription and, well, a regular phone. "As a person with a, er, um, phone, we thought you'd be delighted to receive this email from the phone company about some stupid contest." Gaah. Thus the captains of Fortune 500 industry creep ever closer to the tactics employed by Nigerian conmen.

Lycos has now discovered a new technique. The two-year-delay-stealth-opt-out ploy.

Today I received a special offer from Quote.com (remember them?), a stock advisory service that was acquired by Lycos back when they thought there was some good reason for this acquisition. I received this offer because about two years ago, I posted something on the Raging Bull forum under the alias "searchenginepundit." (I also posted from time to time under the alias "beccaweinberg," a revelation which may lead some to ply me with Freudian analysis... anyway, that's another story.) Two years later, Lycos decides: "hey, we've got all those email addresses from a bunch of folks who never agreed to receive anything, so let's send 'em stuff anyway!"

Looks like Lycos isn't shy about "leveraging" any email address of any person who has ever used any Lycos service in the past. Now I'm sure to some pundit from the advertising industry, and to the folks in marketing operations at Lycos, the act of rounding up email addresses associated with registrations for various services - no matter what type of permission was granted at the time of signing up - and then sending them "special offers," seems perfectly normal, sane, and logical. Or at the very least, a minor faux pas that nonetheless ought to be indulged by anyone "who lives in the real world."

But is it that simple? Isn't two years of radio silence from the hoarder of user data a pretty good indication that there is no longer any kind of implied relationship? When you register for one thing and give your email only for the purpose of customer care (such as receiving your lost password), are you automatically agreeing to receive special offers from other divisions of the company? Well, of course not!

A quick look at Lycos' verbose "privacy policy" statement confirms that the policy contains enough booby-traps to catch even careful users. But in other cases, there really aren't any loopholes if you opt out correctly; in such cases, the policy is simply being violated. In sum, the disturbing trend with corporate abuse of the opt-in principle can be summed up as follows: "We have a detailed privacy policy, and where it isn't quite complicated enough to induce users to accidentally opt in, we're prepared to move to Plan B: ignore the policy altogether."

The new Lycos policy statement tells users that they may opt out of any and all mailings by revisiting their membership information page and unchecking appropriate boxes. Or, by leaving them unchecked at "first collection." So I went to the page. It appears that my email subscription list contains "none" out of 40 or so possible items I could have opted into. And yet, they sent me stuff anyway. Is the "disclosure" of these privacy policies to independent nonprofit Trust.e worth the paper it's printed on? Evidently not.

They do have a sense of humor, though. The "privacy policy" gives a few tips on safe Internet surfing, such as this for example:

"10. What you can do to better protect yourself on the Internet?

"Know the risks.

"Meeting new people in an online community (chat room, forum, newsgroup, message board, Web page, etc.) is one of the best things about the Internet, but you should always be careful about disclosing personal information such as an actual name, member name, email address, and so on. This information may be collected and used by others within the online community to send unsolicited email messages from other parties, outside the Lycos Network. Some of the messages you receive may be useful to you, but some may not."

Thanks for the heads-up. I'll be sure to be careful.

Now, Lycos, do you understand why I usually register with aliases like Becca Weinberg, with a fake phone number, outdated home address, and dormant email address? Imagine what might happen to me if I let myself begin to trust, even just once!

Posted by Andrew Goodman




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