Big Bezos Is Watching You

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos seems to be gambling that when it comes to Internet privacy, honesty and ignorance may be a winning combination. Ever since George Washington felled the cherry tree, Americans have embraced the peculiar notion that being up front about one’s evildoing diminishes the wrong. If only Clinton had been honest about Monica, the logic seems to go, his behavior would have been far less reprehensible.

Horse hockey. Lying may compound a wrong, but Amazon’s openness about its new privacy — or should I say “lack of privacy” — policy does not deserve applause. In fact, the pure arrogance of the strategy should light a bonfire under advocacy groups, ratcheting up the campaign to educate the Web surfing public.

The New Economy mentality is creating an exceedingly uncomfortable reality: “Big Bezos” and a lot of other technological snoops are watching us more closely every day.

Is Amazon Listening?

The notice from Amazon.com stating that the company reserves the right to sell customers’ personal data doesn’t even address the consumer concerns that were so sharply drawn into focus by a recent study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project. According to the report, most U.S. Web users do not want to permit sharing of their personal information.

A whopping 90 percent said they would favor punishment for executives who violated privacy policies.

So Amazon’s solution is to create a policy that allows executives to do as they please. Sure, it’s a sharp slap in the faces of their customers — but hey, they’re being honest about it! After all, there is the possibility that the company may want to enter into big money deals involving the sale of that information. They’re not going to pass up the bucks, but they don’t want anyone to accuse them of being duplicitous, so they’ll just admit their sins in advance and shrug their shoulders all the way to the bank.

It’s just “bidness,” folks.

What You Don’t Know

Bezos and his pals undoubtedly believe that Amazon can get away with this brazen move because most e-mail recipients’ eyes will glaze over after they read the first sentence or two of the company’s notification — if they bother to read it at all — and the people who log on to Amazon.com to buy a book don’t have the time or interest to scrutinize the privacy policy posted on the site. So they remain blissfully ignorant.

Many of those consumers are probably the same people whose bile rises as they stuff piles of junk mail into the recycling bin, and who really, really hate spam. They probably love Jerry Seinfeld’s handling of telemarketers: “I can’t talk right now, but if you give me your home phone number, I’ll call you later.” Where do they think all the annoying, wasteful clutter and the dinner-time interruptions are coming from?

Learn from Experience

Internet ad company DoubleClick got into a boatload of trouble when it attempted to take its surreptitious practice of using “cookies” — which track the surfing patterns of Web users — one step further, by linking the information to personal data. Privacy advocates blew the whistle, and DoubleClick found itself answering a slew of legal complaints and flailing in a public relations quagmire.

A great hue and cry rose in the Internet universe when the failed Toysmart.com attempted to renege on its promise to never share customer information with a third party. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued the company when it included its customer information on a list of assets for sale in bankruptcy proceedings. Toysmart has since backed down in response to the uproar.

If a company that’s already dead is forced to respond to a public outcry, what makes Amazon so bold?

Slick Jeffy

It comes back to the honesty and ignorance thing. If more people knew that passivity over Internet privacy spawns ever-increasing intrusions into their daily lives, they would be hanging out of their windows screaming. If more people were less reverent about the virtue of honesty, they would realize that telling the truth about bad behavior doesn’t make it good. In fact, when it’s a premeditated strategy, it’s just plain slick.

We have become so inured to the probing of outsiders that we tend to lie down and cover our heads to reduce the bruises instead of fighting back. But I say, let’s take a moment and think about what we want from technology. Do we really want to empower the masters of the Web universe to the point where some stranger on the other side of the globe could end up learning details of our families and our private business before we do?

The Internet may not be worth the aggravation, if e-commerce giants are allowed to trammel the rights of the little people.

I don’t want to learn about Great Aunt Hattie’s passing from a guy trying to sell me a funeral wreath.

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