Amazon, Subsidiary Face Privacy Lawsuits, FTC

FRAMINGHAM (02/11/2000) - An Inc. subsidiary faces two class-action lawsuits and an informal inquiry from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) on allegations that it secretly collected personal data from its software users and transmitted that data to third parties, including Amazon.

Seattle-based, which is also named as a defendant in the suits, disclosed the information last week in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Amazon's subsidiary, San Francisco-based Alexa Internet Corp., makes and distributes software that can be added to browsers to aid users in Web navigation.

Amazon and Alexa said the charges have no merit and Alexa is fully cooperating with the FTC on a voluntary basis.

The FTC would neither confirm nor deny that it's conducting an investigation.

But Richard Smith, an Internet consultant in Brookline, Mass., acknowledged that he complained to the FTC late last year about the way Alexa collects personal data.

Information based on data that Alexa collects and stores about Web sites users visit is made available to Alexa users. The information can include, for example, the domain name's registrant, the company's annual revenue, site popularity ratings, reviews of sites and related links.

Smith said that every time an Alexa user visits a new Web page, the address is sent to Alexa. "The issue is that sometimes [Web addresses] contain personal, identifiable data in the query string - including things like e-mail address, name, home address - and that information is being sent back to Alexa," he said.

Alexa spokeswoman Dia Cheney said usage-path information is stored anonymously and separately from e-mail addresses or any demographic information that users provide. "We have no means for correlating that information," she said. "Our databases were designed to protect the privacy of the users, and we have very strict privacy policies."

Alexa does sell some of the information it collects, including a listing of the top 100,000 sites and other similar information, Cheney said. But she stressed that it's "aggregate data" that isn't tied to specific consumers.

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