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Turning online privacy into a joke

When it comes to cyberprivacy, Donal Daly, CEO of The Customer Respect Group, says many businesses are dangerously out of tune with the concerns of their customers.

    Online privacy: It is at once both a libertarian's cause celebre and a thorn in the side of business and government.

    Consumers' passions erupt as marketers seek to exploit market intelligence, sometimes questionably gained. Privacy and its attendant concerns are shaping where dollars are spent--particularly on the Internet--and businesses better sit up and take notice.

    In a survey of the adult online population, conducted by The Customer Respect Group in February 2004, the importance of respectful treatment of consumers' privacy concerns was underlined by some dramatic findings. When survey participants were asked how much they care about a company's privacy policy when invited to enter personal information to a Web site, 22.4 percent responded that in the absence of a privacy policy, they would not offer the information. A further 26.6 percent echoed this sentiment by indicating that if they were unhappy with a company's privacy policy they would leave the site.

    The legalistic approach that some adopt when crafting their online privacy policy is both unfriendly and counterproductive.
    Why is it that some large corporations seem so out of tune with the deep-seated concerns of some of their audience? The legalistic approach that some adopt when crafting their online privacy policy is both unfriendly and counterproductive. It serves only to foment anger and distrust while simultaneously perpetuating the "us and them" culture so graphically exhibited by the major corporate scandals of recent years.

    Nonexistent, inaccessible or confusing declarations about how a company will treat the personal data of an individual is demonstrative of an uncaring attitude and is highly disrespectful of the customer the company purports to serve.

    Consider the following: When asked to prioritize the reasons why they chose to abandon a Web site, one in every six respondents indicated that they were not happy with the company's privacy policy or the transparency of its business practices. The survey constituents were not the "loony left," or a collection of disenfranchised liberal students hoping to watch capitalism crumble.

    These are the professional, clerical, technical and administrative employees who work hard and keep business moving. The good news is that many companies are now putting the customer at the center of their online presence design, getting the balance right and reaping the rewards. Hewlett-Packard is one company that is committed to online privacy and data protection.

    The tone of HP's online privacy policy is reassuring and informative. HP is a founding member of the Better Business Bureau's online privacy program and adheres to the EU/U.S. Safe Harbor principles. The information provided is clear and written in plain English, avoiding legalese. There is a separate page containing detailed information on the company's use of cookies, including a general description of the technology and links to full instructions on how cookies may be disabled. Every page on the site provides a clear link to the privacy policy.

    Some of the worst examples would be almost laughable if the underlying sentiment was not so disrespectful.
    Good privacy practices are not limited to the technology sector. Other leaders in this area include Southwest Airlines; U.K. telecommunications provider BT Group; insurance and financial services company Cincinnati Financial; and Investor's Business Daily.

    These companies are varied in their business objectives. Some have short privacy policies and other have extensive descriptions of how they use personal data proffered online. They converge through a basic philosophy of customer respect, explaining clearly how they use personal data, not choosing to sell or share data outside their organizations, and electing to have the customer opt-in, or consciously decide to receive communications from them.

    Some of the worst examples would be almost laughable if the underlying sentiment was not so disrespectful. One of the largest media companies in the world chooses to have a disclaimer rather than a privacy policy. When you click on the disclaimer link, the following text is displayed: "Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet..." Yes, it's Latin. No, even if you translate, it does not explain the privacy policy of the company. I guess it wasn't that important to the company, and they just forgot.

    Good privacy practices make good commercial sense. Unless companies get it right, half of their online audience will vote with their mouse-click and not provide the information requested. And when visitors to a site leave because of an unsatisfactory experience, two out of every three go to a competitor's site: food for thought when designing your next privacy policy.