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Net privacy in breach again

It seems privacy issues are once again at the forefront of attention on the web.

RealNetworks’ use of its RealJukebox software to monitor users’ listening habits using globally unique identifiers (GUIDs), was found to be against its own privacy

policy.

Industry privacy monitor, TRUSTe, gave RealNetworks its seal of approval which was intended to guarantee the company was adhering to the terms of the web site’s privacy policy.

The discovery of the RealJukebox software, secretly being used to gather information, has lead to a TRUSTe investigation into the RealNetworks company.

Some claim this places doubt on the possibility of the Internet being a self-regulatory system.

As Jay Davidson, EyeSite Australian Financial Review journalist and self-proclaimed Internet moral guardian puts it: “the electronic TRUSTe seal isn’t worth the paper it’s not printed on”.

However, the TRUSTe seal of approval covered web site privacy only and not the software obtained from it.

In light of the RealNetworks’ breach of privacy terms, TRUSTe plans to have a new software seal set up within six months .

TRUSTe’s Dave Steer commented: “Regardless of whether you’re collecting information on a web site or from software, you must disclose these practices to the consumer”.

RealNetworks claims not to have been using the information it gathered about customers and is now working at regaining consumer trust.

It has updated its privacy policy and disabled the RealJukebox GUIDs, while working with TRUSTe and an unnamed party who are overseeing the changes and auditing the company’s privacy practices.

The findings of the investigation will be made public when the work is completed.

With the release of RealPlayer 7.0, GUIDs will be anonymous and only operational if users decide to opt-in to this feature.

RealNetworks’ director of marketing systems Pete Zaballos said: “By opting in there’s an opportunity to present a more personalised, relevant set of information. It could eliminate unwanted or unnecessary promotions or marketing”.

“The most damaging thing that could happen if we don’t follow through on our promise would be we’d violate our trust with customers. That’s the thing we value most and take most seriously,” Mr Zaballos said.

Considering RealNetworks’ breach of its own privacy terms and the current lack of retribution the company has suffered from privacy monitor TRUSTe, it might seem that something a little more than trust is wanted to regulate privacy matters on the net.

Consumers of RealJukebox software in the US, however, have filed a law suit against RealNetworks, claiming they have violated state privacy laws, consumer protection statues and the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

The outcome of the suit is not yet known.

l Raphe Patmore is a executive director of Q Multimedium.

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