Tags: Hotmail | Confusion | Fuels | Privacy | Debate

Hotmail Confusion Fuels Privacy Debate

Sunday, 26 May 2002 12:00 AM

Over the past couple of weeks, some upset long time users of Microsoft’s free Hotmail service, a web-based e-mail subscribed to by millions, have been wrestling with just such perceived ambiguity when overnight three new tick boxes appeared in their heretofore invisible "user profiles,” two of which ("share my email address” and "share my other registration information") appearing to be pre-selected "opt-ins.”

Not so, Adam Sohn, product manager in Microsoft’s .NET platform strategy group hastened to explain to CNN last week as the Hotmail brouhaha circulated in chat rooms across the World Wide Web. "We are merely showing people their current settings."

"While Hotmail’s current policy is to set all new users’ setting to ‘opt out’ of all three options by default, it is possible that long-time users signed up under former policies in which the default setting was to opt in,” Sohn admits, adding – ambiguously -- the assurance, "Microsoft’s privacy policy has not changed."

Hotmail’s Paul Whiteway explained they were planning on telling users about the new boxes sometime in mid-June via an email update. Spokesmen now say that may not happen as it may just add to the confusion.

None of these explanations, however, have defused angry and confused users that do not see the Hotmail changes as benign and lay the blame at the feet of ".NET Passport," Microsoft’s brand name for a universal, all-in-one password. The Passport service can identify an online consumer and speed his or her purchase at a variety of participating Web sites.

Long time pre-.NET users of Hotmail got the reputed advantages of .NET Passport whether they wanted to or not. As explained in the fine print on the homepage: "You may already have a .NET Passport. If you have a Hotmail or MSN e-mail account, you already have a .NET Passport."

And therein rests much of the rub.

"No matter what boxes you had unchecked to protect your privacy before, you will find that the move to .NET has reset them to share your e-mail address and Profile information," recently wrote one angry reader to the web’s Soft Talk.

When NewsMax questioned the customer service folks at Hotmail about what was going on, it got the apparently canned reply: "I want to reassure you that MSN Hotmail has not changed any of your settings, rather, these boxes have been set to match your current .NET Passport settings. Previously, these settings could only be viewed or changed on the .NET Passport site. MSN Hotmail is now giving you the opportunity to update and make changes to your own settings at MSN Hotmail as well as at .NET Passport."

All this, of course, begs the question as to when and how "current .NET Passport settings” came about in the first place.

Which brings us around to the key language of the proposed Senate Bill (S. 2201):

"An internet service provider, online service provider, or operator of a commercial website may not collect personally identifiable information unless the provider or operator provides

Proponents of the bill say that polls demonstrate that individual Internet users are highly troubled over their lack of control over their personal information. Furthermore, market research demonstrates that tens of billions of dollars in e-commerce are lost due to individual fears about a lack of privacy protection on the Internet -- and as many as one-third of all Internet users give false information about themselves to protect their privacy.

And as to robustness and clarity, an example from the Hotmail privacy explanation:

"There are three specific cases, however, in which a .NET Passport participating site will receive your profile information regardless of your check-box settings:

"If you registered for a .NET Passport through a participating site or service, for example by filling out a combined registration form for both a .NET Passport and an account with the participating site or service, then that registering site or service will receive the profile information at the time of registration.

"When the registering site or service also provides you with an e-mail account as part of your .NET Passport account, then the company providing that e-mail service will receive your profile information on sign-in..."

A supporter of the Senate Bill, the Electronic Privacy Information Center has been in court the last couple of years fighting the current system of self-regulation of privacy issues on the web. In one of those filings, EPIC alleges:

"In addition to the unwarranted collection of consumer data, Microsoft offers no method to delete a Passport registration. Microsoft claims that Passport gives users control of their personal information. However, the most basic aspect of control—the right to take back one’s personal information—is not accommodated by the Passport system.

"We notified the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) of Passport’s alleged violations of Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act in a formal complaint on July 26, 2001 and in an updated complaint on August 15, 2001. These complaints, endorsed by fifteen leading consumer advocacy groups, describe the serious privacy implications of Microsoft .Net Passport, and related .Net Services. These complaints urged the FTC to begin a formal investigation; however, the FTC has not taken action.”

The sponsors of the Internet Privacy Bill sympathize with the frustration of EPIC, noting that with the exception of Federal Trade Commission enforcement of laws against unfair and deceptive practices, the Federal Government has eschewed general Internet privacy laws in favor of industry self-regulation.

This situation, according to the sponsors, has led to several self-policing schemes, none of which are enforceable in any meaningful way or provide sufficient privacy protection to individuals.

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Over the past couple of weeks, some upset long time users of Microsoft's free Hotmail service, a web-based e-mail subscribed to by millions, have been wrestling with just such perceived ambiguity when overnight three new tick boxes appeared in their heretofore invisible ...
Sunday, 26 May 2002 12:00 AM
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