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Drkoop.com sale raises e-mail concerns

Health site members have until Sunday to opt-out of having their e-mail addresses added to the mailing lists of Vitacost.com, an online vitamin discount shop.

More than six months after filing for bankruptcy protection, Drkoop.com is selling its assets, including its members' e-mail addresses, to Vitacost.com.

The sale of the popular health information site, co-founded by former U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, will be final by Friday.

Drkoop members have until Sunday to opt-out of having their e-mail addresses added to the mailing lists of Vitacost.com, an online vitamin discount shop based in Boynton Beach, Fla., and its affiliate HeartCenterOnline, a Web site for cardiovascular patients.

Drkoop members were notified of the change Monday in an e-mail signed by Drkoop Vice President Chris Petrovic.

The use of opt-out policies has raised the ire of privacy advocates, who say that opt-in policies, where the information stays put until customers actively give their consent, are fairer. But opt-out policies are becoming more common on the Web. Yahoo and Best Buy recently introduced changes to their online privacy policies that required customers to opt-out of the changes if they chose not to participate.

In order to opt-out of having e-mail addresses and other personal information transferred to a third party, such as an acquiring company, customers must proactively send a request, usually by e-mail or an online form, by a specific date. If they don't, the information is automatically transferred.

By taking the opt-out route, Drkoop appears to contradict the privacy policy posted on its Web site, which states that personal information provided by visitors, including e-mail addresses, "will not be disclosed to anyone unless the visitors indicate that Drkoop may do so."

Other Internet companies that have explicitly barred sharing user data with any third parties have stumbled into legal problems when entering into a merger or acquisition. Last summer, Fry's Electronics' proposed acquisition of Egghead.com hit a stumbling block because of a disagreement over the opt-out scheme. Fry's eventually cancelled its $10 million bid.

Toysmart.com tried to sell its customer list after it went bankrupt. Ultimately, the data was destroyed after vigorous complaints from consumer advocacy groups, the Federal Trade Commission, and a coalition of 39 states that tried to block the sale.