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Planned Sale of Voter.com's Data Raises Privacy Concerns

Internet: Defunct Web site says its users will have a chance to block e-mail addresses, party affiliations from being sold.

March 08, 2001|EDMUND SANDERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Voter.com, a popular political Web site that folded last month, is trying to raise cash by auctioning its consumer database, including the e-mail addresses, party affiliations and political interests of about 170,000 subscribers.

The defunct Internet site is the latest to raise privacy hackles by peddling data about its users. A similar move last year by bankrupt Toysmart.com prompted a lawsuit by the Federal Trade Commission.

As more Internet sites close down or file for bankruptcy, privacy advocates worry that sensitive consumer information will be sold to pay creditors.

"You can't treat personal information like desks and chairs," said Dave Steer, spokesman for Truste, a privacy certification program that had awarded Voter.com one of its privacy seals.

Truste, which spoke out strongly against Toysmart's plan to sell its customer list, is investigating whether Voter.com's auction plans violate the terms of the company's privacy policy or Truste's seal agreement.

Alexander Bok, an attorney for Voter.com, said the company recently responded to Truste's concerns by agreeing to give all subscribers an opportunity to block their information from being sold. He said Voter.com planned to post the revised sale terms on its Web site late Wednesday. Voter.com subscribers will be notified via e-mail once a buyer is found, he said.

Bok said the company, in accordance with its privacy policy, would sell its database only to another political newsletter or political media company, not to a marketing or fund-raising company.

Earlier this week, the site posted a list of assets to be liquidated, including the rights to its domain name.

Until its demise, the Web site provided political news, commentary and Internet chat sessions with candidates.

Its polling data were widely cited during the presidential race, and its editors included former Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein. Voter.com was founded by its 26-year-old chief executive, Justin Dangel, and it raised about $22 million in venture capital. It received 3 million visitors in November during the height of the presidential election drama.

After it was unable to raise additional money from investors, the site said Feb. 5 that it would shut down, laying off 45 workers.

The consumer database contains information on 170,000 subscribers to the company's political newsletters, including e-mail addresses and political interests from abortion to taxes. Names and home addresses are not included, but many of the profiles include the person's ZIP Code, sex and political party. Bok said the database does not include opinions expressed in the site's daily political poll or registration questionnaire.

Frank Torres, legislative counsel for Consumers Union in Washington, said the proposed sale of the database is troubling. "Who wants this information floating around?" Torres said. "As more companies do this, there may be a backlash. People may stop participating in these kinds of Web sites."

Voter.com said it may sell the list to a single buyer or to the top four bidders on a nonexclusive basis. Initial bids are due by March 14.

A spokesman for the FTC said the agency would intervene only if the company violated the terms of its privacy policy.

The agency sued Toysmart.com last year after the e-commerce company tried to sell its customer list, including 250,000 names and credit card numbers. Under Toysmart's privacy policy, the company pledged it would never sell its information to a third party. Earlier this year, the controversy was put to rest when Walt Disney Co., which held a majority interest in Toysmart, agreed to pay $50,000 for the customer database and then destroy it.

Bok noted that Voter.com, unlike Toysmart, did not promise subscribers that it would never share its customer information with third parties. "This is nothing like the Toysmart case," he said.

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