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NO CHEERS FOR YAHOO



Published: Wed, April 17, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Philadelphia Inquirer: With the exclamation point in its logo, the online mega-portal Yahoo! once symbolized the free-wheeling, golly-gee flavor of the Internet. Well, everybody has to grow up.

And with Yahoo's recent decision to sell the information stored up on its users' e-mail and postal addresses and phone numbers, the Internet just acquired a few more gray hairs.

From the ads crowding every PC screen to the e-mail inboxes jammed with sales pitches, the Internet today looks like any other bourse. The nearly complete commercialization of the Net is saddening given its early promise as a source of free discourse and civic connection.

What's equally disturbing is how, as companies seek to earn a buck in a medium known for red ink, commercialization has become linked to a serious erosion of customers' privacy.

Print publications and department stores that rent your name to telemarketers have only so much data. But the Web portal or Internet provider knows an enormous amount about sites you visit and what you do there -- details from which far more intrusive conclusions can be drawn.

Expanded user lists

That explains the fuss over Yahoo's plans to expand access to its registered user lists. In a change from previous policies, Yahoo users will have to go online and inform the company they'd don't want mail or phone solicitations.

That is the industry standard, but it's far from ideal.

Web surfers' privacy, as well as their dinner-hour solitude, would be safeguarded far more if Internet sites sold only lists of users who had asked to be contacted about sales offers. That's known as the opt-in approach.

For now, neither Yahoo nor the Internet industry wants to go that route. Trade groups contend that opt-in rules would be cumbersome. They grumble, too, that bricks-and-mortar merchants don't need their mailing lists approved. (Of course, many of those merchants would love the sales tax exemption Congress gave e-biz.)

The grown-up Internet is largely about business and needing to turn a profit. So privacy one day may come with a price tag. Surfers could pay a higher access fee to be left alone.

Maybe the industry doesn't want to go that way, either. But what would it like even less? Legally imposed consumer protections that restrict access to online consumer data, that's what.

Can't happen? Witness the momentum in Minnesota, where lawmakers are close to enacting measures mandating such protections -- the first in the nation.




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