- The Washington Times - Friday, April 12, 2002

Internet portal Yahoo has changed its privacy policy, indicating that it could call or send mail to its registered users in an effort to market its products and services. Historically, Yahoo has contacted users almost exclusively via e-mail.

Yahoo also said users not wishing to be contacted regarding a host of new services will have to update their member preferences within 60 days, even if they had previously indicated they did not want any marketing from Yahoo. Member preferences for the new services are automatically set to indicate that users wish to receive announcements, and users must check a box to opt out.

Company representatives did not return phone calls yesterday. In previous reports, the company said that its new policy was not a relaxing of privacy rules, but a clarification. Yahoo said it had always indicated it could "contact" users with marketing messages, and never ruled out telephone or mail correspondence.

Some privacy advocates balked at that assertion.

"People aren't expecting Yahoo to drive into their dining room, either," said Mark Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. "That could be considered a form of contact."

The changes to Yahoo's privacy policy were not articulated in the written policy, but in the "marketing preferences" section of an area on the Web site dubbed the "Yahoo Privacy Center."

There, Yahoo has listed 13 new categories of services, and has asked whether users wish to be contacted about them. The boxes indicating "yes" are automatically checked; those not wishing to be contacted must check "no."

Users are asked on the site how they may be contacted, with e-mail, mail and telephone given as choices. Users can opt out of being contacted via e-mail and must check a box to avoid being contacted by mail or telephone.

Policies allowing users to "opt out" of being contacted are now the industry standard.

Member preferences relating to outside companies and Yahoo business partners were not changed.

Yahoo users received e-mail outlining policy changes.

Privacy advocates said the e-mail message is helpful, but warned that it could be accidentally deleted by users who have come to believe an e-mail from Yahoo is an advertisement for a product or service.

Futhermore, they said, the changes should have been more prominently placed in the privacy policy.

"This is common," Mr. Rotenberg said. "More and more stuff is getting pushed to the fine print and it's hard to find."

Some privacy advocates defended Yahoo and said the company has a good track record of protecting users' privacy.

"I think they're actually concerned about privacy issues," said Larry Ponemon, chief executive of the Privacy Council, a corporate privacy firm in Richardson, Texas.

"They basically have not changed their policy, but I don't think they really conveyed their point."

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