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eTour accused of selling customer info

A privacy watchdog group accuses the direct marketing company of selling personal information about millions of customers after it said it never would without permission.

Direct marketing company eTour violated its privacy policy when it sold some personal information about its 4.5 million customers to Ask Jeeves this week, a privacy watchdog group alleged Friday.

The Washington, D.C.-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has sent letters to the Federal Trade Commission and several state attorneys general asking that they investigate eTour's sale of assets to Ask Jeeves.

eTour posts its privacy policy on its Web site, and in it, the company says it "will not give out your name, residence address, or e-mail address to any third parties without your permission, for any reason, at any time, ever."

Andrew Shen, a policy analyst for EPIC, said that despite what the company says on its site, eTour went out and sold that personal information.

Emeryville, Calif.-based Ask Jeeves, an online search engine, bought a portion of eTour's assets for an undisclosed amount of cash Tuesday, saying the purchase would help expand the range of its search results and enhance its advertising capability. Ask Jeeves said it will continue to operate the eTour Web site.

EPIC is comparing eTour's assets sale to last year's furor over Toysmart. The Disney-backed toy e-tailer shuttered its operations last May and began auctioning its assets. Included in the list of assets for sale to the highest bidder was its customers' personal information. Like eTour, Toysmart promised in its privacy policy that it would not share or sell that information.

A report by CNET News.com last June about Toysmart and other failed e-tailers drew protest from privacy groups, the FTC and more than 40 state attorneys general. All charged that Toysmart had violated federal regulations.

A Federal bankruptcy judge eventually allowed Toysmart to sell the customer lists to Disney on the condition that the list be destroyed.

Heather Staples, a spokeswoman for Ask Jeeves, said lumping eTour and Toysmart together is not a fair comparison.

"Toysmart was selling the list for use of commercial purposes not agreed to by the user," Staples said. "We're assuming the privacy policy of the eTour site and we won't be selling it for anything not agreed to by the user."

Customer data can include information such as phone numbers, credit card numbers, home addresses and even statistics on shopping habits. eTour gathered information about its customers including names, ZIP codes, e-mail addresses, gender and personal interests. Some information that eTour asked for on a voluntary basis was a person's profession, housing status and income level.

Staples said Ask Jeeves will notify eTour users of the "asset transfer" and will give them the option to not have their information included.

Shen said giving customers an opportunity to "opt out" of the transfer does not go far enough. He cited FTC rules that prohibit companies from participating in "unfair or deceptive business practices...The FTC must make companies live up to their promises."