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Page 29A

Why does Amazon think it owns my privacy?

By Alcestis ''Cooky'' Oberg

When recently posted a notice that customers' personal information was considered a ''transferable asset'' of the company to be passed around and shared with various corporate allies, I was outraged: ''Who do they think they are, to just hijack my life like that without even saying 'please'?''

So I called immediately -- and got the ''dumb bunny'' treatment at customer service.

''We don't sell information about our customers to anybody,'' the assistant assured me.

''What is a corporate sharing-around of my personal information -- a transferable corporate asset of -- other than a kind of sale?'' I asked.

Another assistant patiently explained that this would help the company better ''serve'' me if its corporate allies, such as, knew what I was buying -- and, in my case, reading.

''Oh?'' The Dumb Bunny canceled her account immediately. And, by day's end, most of my friends and family had done the same.

If the FBI isn't legally allowed to find out what books I check out of the library or what videos I check out of the video store, it's because we, as a nation, determined that it was improper for the government to spy on what people might read or view -- and, by extension, what they might think.

So why should I allow to tell other companies what books and videos I'm buying now? Why should e-companies who place ''cookies'' on people's computers be allowed to shred our sacred right to privacy on such a massive scale? Why should we Americans be required by any corporate or government entity to give up this right to privacy in order to have access to the broad highway of Internet commerce and information?

I think it's high time Congress stopped holding long-winded hearings about Internet privacy and just pass some clear, no-nonsense legislation protecting consumer-privacy rights on the Internet. It's simple:

* Consumer confidentiality: A commercial transaction, whether on the Internet or not, should be just that -- the buying and selling of an item. Period.

There should be the presumption of privacy in every commercial transaction.

The record of the transaction ends right there, non-transferable from the time of the commercial transaction -- a matter between the customer, the merchant and possibly the credit card company (which also should hold all such transactions strictly confidential).

This first principle of commerce should be severely punishable by fines and liable for damages for all violators under new legislation.

* Equal access: There should be equal access to all Internet sites without forcing someone to put a ''cookie'' on his/her computer, as many large commercial Web sites do now. People should be able to move ''cookie-less'' around the Internet, untrackable by some commercial or government information-gathering spy on their tail. It would be simple to write a law insisting that cookies be a voluntary rather than mandatory feature of all Web sites, and to ensure ''equal access'' to the ''cookie-less,'' just as we now insist on equal access to all retail stores.

In essence, there shouldn't be blocked access and enforced ''discrimination'' against people who refuse Web site cookies -- as there is now.

* Private property: All personal information should be defined as a kind of personal property, a ''personal asset.'' Legal, written consent should be required to release personal information to anyone else, as we already do with copyright of intellectual and creative properties. Furthermore, such information cannot be used unless a person is compensated for it, exactly like copyright.

* Privacy should be a civil right: As we move toward the potentially heinous abuses to privacy inherent in 21st-century technologies -- genetic engineering, data gathering and storage, Internet commerce, wireless communications, big cable and media entertainment -- we have to create new, clear and stronger laws that elevate privacy to a civil right and fortify it against assaults from gargantuan corporate interests: insurance companies, banks, retailers, employers, cable-television and Internet providers, retailers, advertisers and snoops of all types.

And it's not just Congress that needs to pay attention. It's a cautionary tale to all presumptuous young e-businesses with riches and corporate mergers on their minds. There are millions of customers out there just like me who are going to resent having our buying, listening and reading habits passed around like so much corporate gossip. If managers had been the whiz-bang retail geniuses that the media have made them out to be, they wouldn't have violated the most basic tenet of retail business: Respect the customer. If the customer is treated arrogantly, like some commodity that can be pushed around, then the business will suffer -- not the customer.

It wouldn't have been hard for to follow this tenet in its announcement, instead of trampling on it with hobnail boots.

First, the managers should have sought each customer's permission with a direct, personal e-mail -- with the option of a big NO if the customer didn't want his/her personal information shared among business entities.

Secondly, could have offered compensation for its corporate use of personal-customer information -- say, a 15% discount on all items bought through the Web site -- as a kind of thank you for opening up information about buying habits to its corporate partners and their partners and their partners. Posting the change to the privacy policy in the fine print of the Web page was a serious violation of customer relations. And pre-emptively grabbing personal information and labeling it a ''business asset'' without compensation approaches, in my view, an act of theft.

I don't know whether will miss my business now or at Christmas, when I like to give gift certificates to friends and family. I just did business on the Internet because it was quick and convenient. But so is writing a check.

And now that these e-retailers are into spying on me and pushing my personal life around the Internet like so much corporate garbage -- well, I guess there's always the brick-and-mortar store down the street.

This Christmas, I might even use cash.

Alcestis ''Cooky'' Oberg, a freelance science and technology writer in Houston, is a member of USA TODAY's board of contributors.

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