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Online game backs away from privacy threat

Sony's popular online game EverQuest dodges a public relations bullet after some players point to a potentially massive violation of their privacy.

Sony's popular online game EverQuest dodged a public relations bullet today, as a new policy was rescinded after some players had called it a potentially massive violation of their privacy.

Game developers Verant Interactive, worried about tools which allow people to cheat or disrupt the online game, wanted to examine players' personal computers for "hacking tools" as a part of a new software upgrade. As recently as last night, executives said they would bar people from the game who didn't agree to open their systems to the digital bloodhounds' inspection.

But after an outcry on electronic bulletin boards devoted to the game and threats by some devoted players to leave the game, the company backtracked.

"We can admit when we make mistakes, and I believe this is a case where we owe an apology to our player base," wrote Verant Interactive chief executive John Smedley in a message to players this afternoon. "In our haste to try and thwart people from damaging the game, we went overboard."

Privacy concerns have been an increasingly potent weapon with which consumers can change corporate policy online. Recent concerns over Internet advertising firm DoubleClick's plans to collect and distribute personal information gave that company's reputation a black eye and forced it to swerve from its goals.

Even companies as powerful as Intel have been affected, as when the chipmaker backed away from its controversial Pentium III "serial number" identification system.

EverQuest is one of the most popular "massively multiplayer" games now on the market. Like peers Ultima Online or Asheron's Call, it creates an online world in which tens of thousands of players can interact at once.

But the game's Security, privacy issues make Net users uneasydevelopers were concerned about unauthorized software that apparently gave some players extra information that they could use to take advantages of others, or even try to disrupt the game's servers.

In a message to players yesterday, the company said it was changing its game software to include a small program that would identify these "hacking" programs when players tried to use them.

"You also grant us permission to access, extract and upload ? data relating to any program that we, in our reasonable discretion, determine interferes with the proper operation of EverQuest," the new clause read.

After the complaints erupted, the company took an online poll this morning and had backed down by late this afternoon.