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Privacy advocates hammer Microsoft

Microsoft says it's committed to protecting consumer privacy. Bunk, privacy watchdogs say.

Privacy advocates seem to never forget.

Three days after Microsoft at Comdex called for companies to adopt online privacy policies, privacy watchdogs are accusing the software giant of hypocrisy.

Advocates such as Jason Catlett, president of anti-spam group Junkbusters, today pointed out historical examples of what he said were Microsoft's violations of consumer privacy. Of Microsoft's violations in the past, Catlett noted that WebTV was receiving information about family viewing habits through the Internet; and Hotmail, its Web-based email subsidiary, was unwittingly revealing users' account names to other Web sites.

In addition, Catlett criticized Microsoft for acquiring ad banner network LinkExchange, which gives the company access to millions of "cookies," digital tags that stay on a Web user's computer and track where that person surfs.

"Microsoft now controls so much personal information about consumers that its empire poses a major threat to privacy," Catlett said in a statement. "It must break from its history of invasive practices and make a real commitment to consumers."

Microsoft disputes the charges. "WebTV does not do this, and does not have ability to do this," said spokesman Tom Pilla. He added that, like other Web companies, WebTV tracks aggregate surfing information to track where its users go within the site.

The issue at hand also involves Microsoft's call for companies to adopt policies outlined by the Online Privacy Alliance. But privacy advocates said those policies are insufficient to protect consumers.

"The Privacy Alliance's guidelines are more public relations than privacy protection," said David Banisar, Policy Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, in a statement.

"Under the guidelines, companies have nearly unlimited ability to disclose personal information to other companies without real consent, while not even allowing consumers access to their own information," Banisar stated. "To compound the problem, there is no impartial mechanism to enforce what little protections the guidelines promise."

Microsoft maintained that its association with the OPA is an an example of its commitment to online privacy.

"Microsoft has been and continues to be very committed to the protection of people's information it the online world," said Pilla. "Evidence of our long-term commitment to privacy includes Microsoft's online sites have privacy statements one click away from their front page screen. These statements outline what personal information are collected, how it is used, and how users can opt out of additional use of information."