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Yahoo! Blurs the Privacy Line

Yahoo! Blurs the Privacy Line

A foolish consistency, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, is the hobgoblin of little minds. But when it comes to Internet privacy and the legal issues involved, consistency is a good thing. Which is why last week should have been at least a bit embarrassing for Yahoo!.

On Monday, co-founder Jerry Yang was one of a handful of Web heavy hitters who signed a letter urging Internet companies to draft and follow strict privacy guidelines.

Three days later, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and an Internet privacy group announced they would join a lawsuit alleging that Yahoo! violates users' privacy rights by revealing their true identities to third parties without their consent.

A Thorny Issue

The juxtaposition of the two events highlights the struggle that will face the Internet as it attempts to shore up privacy in house, rather than waiting for governments to restrict the Web. The privacy issue, of course, is really a bundle of separate issues, ranging from the security of documents sent to a site to the true identity of so-called anonymous users.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has been studying online privacy and is likely to recommend sweeping guidelines. Clearly, one of the goals of Yang and his cohorts is to have the debate steered as much by Internet companies as by government agencies.

Stuck in the Middle

For Yahoo!, though, the issue quickly got even stickier. The lawsuit challenges its policy of identifying chat room users who companies say used the rooms to defame a firm or disclose inside secrets.

The ACLU and the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) have backed the claim of an Ohio man who criticized his employer, the AnswerThink Consulting Group, in a Yahoo! chat room.

Claiming that some of the 300 postings the man made under the name "Aquacool_2000" were defamatory and disclosed confidential information, AnswerThink got Yahoo! to turn over the man's true identity without his knowledge, then fired him and sued him personally for damages.

In addition to seeking damages from Yahoo!, the suit also seeks to change the policy so that users have a chance to respond to a company's allegations before their identities are turned over. Currently, the suit charges, Yahoo! turns names over without verifying whether a complaint has any merit.

The current Yahoo! policy sets it apart from such rivals as AOL and Microsoft, which allow users the opportunity to fight subpoenas for their identities. Yahoo! maintains that users should have a lower expectation of privacy protection because the company offers free access to chat rooms.

Regulators Watching

Of course, that kind of inconsistency is what could prompt regulators to take action, with or without the input or consent of Internet firms. The difference between AOL and Yahoo! chat rooms may be clear to insiders, but it is blurry to the man on the street. Users should feel confident that if they express the same idea in two different places, there will be no risk of two very different outcomes.

By sounding the call for privacy, the CEOs have the right idea. Every company should mobilize to make a clear statement on privacy to reassure visitors. But once that first step is completed, these leaders should get together again and agree on some guidelines.

After all, with regulation waiting patiently in the wings, it may be their last chance.


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