- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2000

NEW YORK On-line advertising agency DoubleClick launched a counterattack yesterday against accusations that it invades consumers' privacy on the Internet, but the effort merely escalated a clash with privacy advocates seeking a government clampdown.

The widening rift underscores the controversy between a marketing industry eager to harness the Internet's power to reach customers and those who fear the intrusion into people's confidential information, such as spending habits, health status and food preferences.

New York-based DoubleClick is the nation's largest Internet ad agency, electronically inserting advertisements on about 1,500 Web sites on behalf of on-line advertisers.

But last fall, the company landed in hot water with privacy advocates when it bought direct marketing company Abacus for $1.7 billion. What irked them was DoubleClick's plans to cross-reference information obtained by Web "cookie" technology with consumer information from the Abacus marketing database.

DoubleClick, targeted in a lawsuit filed last month and a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission last week, stands accused of seeking to build virtual dossiers on unwitting consumers' buying habits and identities, with the intent to sell the data to advertisers who can barrage people with ads.

DoubleClick fought back yesterday, introducing an advertising campaign that attempts to portray itself as the opposite: a consumer-friendly company that goes out of its way to protect consumers' privacy on the Internet.

The DoubleClick measures include placing 50 million banner ads on Web sites, part of an "Internet Privacy Education Campaign" that the company says makes it easier for Web users to "opt out" of giving marketers confidential details about their shopping habits. The banner ads will be placed over the next few months, DoubleClick's President Kevin Ryan said in a teleconference.

DoubleClick also said that PricewaterhouseCoopers would start conducting independent audits of its privacy practices.

Yet privacy advocates immediately termed the DoubleClick effort as window-dressing, saying it avoids the main issue of which DoubleClick stands accused: Linking information users believed was anonymous planted on "cookie" files on their computer hard drives with a database of names and consumer buying habits.

A "cookie" is a small file that a Web site deposits on your hard drive, often with a unique number that identifies the user's computer. The next time someone using that computer goes back to the site, the site will recognize the computer.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., filed the complaint last week with the FTC. The group also is pushing for federal legislation that would regulate the use of personal information and "cookies" on the Internet.

It followed a similar move late last month by Harriet Judnick, a California woman who sued in Marin County Superior Court saying the cross-referencing between the DoubleClick and Abacus databases was being done without users' consent. She is seeking class-action status on behalf of all people in the state.

The conflict puts DoubleClick at the vortex of a wider debate over how far businesses should go to target consumers.

Privacy advocates say the notion of the Internet as a free-flowing forum for ideas and information is giving into a harsher reality: Business wants to know where you go, what you look at, and, most importantly, what you're likely to buy.

"The critical issue is, what will be the future advertising model for the Internet," said EPIC's Marc Rotenberg.

DoubleClick defends its practices, saying its ads ensure that the Web remains free for consumers to use.

"We strongly believe that effective advertising is key to keeping the Internet free to consumers … and strongly believe that consumers want to receive information about goods and services that interest them," said Mr. Ryan.

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