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eBay backs off privacy-policy change

The online auctioneer is changing a controversial revision it made to its privacy policy that involved holding members to the official policy despite other statements on the site.

eBay is backing off of a controversial revision to its privacy policy.

The revision had said that eBay might make statements regarding privacy rules on its site that conflict with its official privacy policy. In those cases, members had to agree that only the official privacy policy was the true statement of eBay's rules.

eBay is now updating that revision to encourage members to read the company's official policy if they have questions about eBay's rules on privacy.

"These are changes that were suggested to us," eBay spokesman Kevin Pursglove said Tuesday. "The suggestion was to simply clarify it, simply make it easier to understand. We're going to say the same thing, only a little bit differently."

The newly updated privacy policy, which has not yet been posted to eBay's site, will go into effect for most members around April 19, Pursglove said, and for new members on Tuesday.

The change of the conflicting language is welcome, but it's just a start, said Jason Catlett, president of privacy advocate Junkbusters.

"This was the first change that needed to be made," Catlett said. "But there are still a lot of other problems with the privacy policy. It's still far from satisfactory."

Watchdog group TRUSTe had several objections to the privacy revisions, spokesman Dave Steer said. One was that eBay did not originally label the revised policy as a "draft," he said.

"It's important to us that eBay be completely consistent in its policies," Steer said. "It's all about clarity, really being clear to the user that they know what's going on."

The criticism from TRUSTe over the changes marked the second time in a year that the watchdog organization and eBay have been at odds over the company's privacy policy. Last year, TRUSTe criticized eBay when the company reset the personalized settings of millions of its customers from "no" to "yes" on questions such as: "Do you want to receive calls from telemarketers."

eBay notified members last month that it was updating its user agreement and privacy policy. The changes immediately drew criticism from auction watchdogs and privacy advocates, who charged that the company was making it easier to disclose members' personal information or ban them from the site.

Catlett had taken special offense to the portion of the revised privacy policy that mentioned the multiple and possibly conflicting privacy statements.

He had said that the change would allow the company to misrepresent its policies to unsuspecting members, not to mention Web browsers that have built-in privacy protection features. Browsers such as Internet Explorer 6.0 do not depend on a company's full privacy policy, but on a concise summary of a company's privacy principles to guard against unwanted cookies.

Cookies are small data files written to a person's hard drive when he or she views certain sites with an Internet browser. The files contain information that the site can use to track such things as passwords, lists of pages visited and the date when a person last looked at a certain page.

Under the original revision, eBay might persuade a Web browser to accept cookies that it might not otherwise accept, by having a privacy summary that differed from its full privacy policy, Catlett warned. Catlett responded by filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

For its part, eBay said it is not yet using the browser-targeted privacy summaries, Pursglove said. eBay does provide summaries of its privacy policy that people can read, as well as charts that indicate what information it will and won't share.

In addition to Junkbusters and TRUSTe, the Center for Democracy and Technology also criticized the original revision, Pursglove said. The FTC complaint and the criticism from the privacy advocates helped persuade eBay to change it.

"They all agreed that we could clarify the language and make it easier to understand," he said.

Although other parts of the user agreement and privacy policy drew criticism, eBay is only changing the one provision about conflicting terms, Pursglove said.