Tech Industry

Onsale to protect customer privacy

After sending unsolicited email to a competitor's clients, auction site Onsale launches a feature to safeguard its own customers' personal data.

After sending unsolicited email to a competitor's clientele, angering some Netizens, the online auction site Onsale has launched a new feature to safeguard its own customers' personal information.

The initial tangle occurred last month when eBay, which also lets customers auction their own items from its site, accused rival Onsale of harnessing eBay users' email addresses and then sending spam about a new Onsale service. Executives from Onsale readily admitted that they gathered the email addresses from the site to send "relevant" information--not spam--to Net users. Still, Onsale ceased sending notes to eBay customers when the company and others complained.

Perhaps learning from the experience, today Onsale announced that potential buyers and sellers can communicate on its site without disclosing their names or email addresses. Instead, interested parties can send inquiries to Onsale, which will publicly post the questions but only email the seller the potential buyer's contact information. The entire exchange between all parties is automated.

"We found that our customer base had a concern with privacy," Onsale spokeswoman Stefanie Elkins said today. "We see our policy as a competitive advantage."

Onsale has realized, she said, that protecting its customers' privacy is a good business practice. But Onsale's own policy won't necessarily stop it from spamming others.

"Other sites that list their customers' email--the customers know that site's policy. Presumably they have their email up to be contacted about relevant matters," Elkins said. "We contacted eBay's customers because we thought our new service was something they would be interested in."

The incident also pushed eBay to rethink its publishing of the email addresses of its 300,000 registered users, the company's chief executive Pierre Omidyar told CNET's NEWS.COM after the Onsale email messages were sent. As of today, however, email addresses for eBay's registered users were still posted online.

"eBay has surveyed its users to explore new ways to protect their privacy without compromising their ability to communicate and get to know each other. It has been a time-consuming process and eBay is continuing to weigh its options," said an eBay spokesman.