Is Convergence Good For Privacy?

I’ve been hearing about the upcoming convergence of online and offline commerce.

Apparently, the boundaries between online and offline commerce will begin to blur and then fade to nothing. The idea being that every company, one day, will become an off/online hybrid, marketing through multiple channels simultaneously.

Every company? Not likely.

But in the meantime, I fear that convergence may very quickly begin to damage some of our online business practices that are refreshingly good.

Like the protection of personal privacy.

A basic requirement of any kind of relationship is the expectation of privacy. And the protection of privacy is one of the things that is different and good about the business-to-customer relationship online.

As an example, here’s what living.com says in their privacy statement:

“Our pledge to you is that living.com will never willfully sell, trade, rent, disclose, or make available personally identifiable information about you to any third party without first receiving your permission, except when we believe in good faith that the law requires it, or to protect the rights or property of living.com.”

That’s a pretty attractive policy from the customer’s point of view.

In fact, this kind of policy statement is something the online industry can be proud of. We’re raising the bar in a good way.

Now consider what we can expect from offline direct mail companies.

In the offline world, once your name and address gets into the hands of one direct mailer, you can expect it to be sold, bartered and shared with a lot of other companies.

There is no expectation of privacy.

Here, for instance, is what the folks from Victoria’s Secret have to say about privacy in their print catalog.

“We occasionally make our customer list available to a few reputable, carefully screened companies whose products you may find of interest.”

In other words, “Privacy? What privacy?”

Phew, thank goodness online companies will never be tainted with that nasty offline attitude.

Well, before you become overly complacent about our moral superiority online, here’s a section from the privacy statement at a site that’s been around for quite a while.

“Only in one case does your name and address ever leave Lands’ End. If you purchase a product from us, we may exchange your name with a few select companies whose products and services are similar. We do this to help our business grow. Also, most of our customers enjoy being introduced to new, high-quality catalogs.”

Yes, this is taken from the Lands’ End web site. And, yes, Lands’ End was an offline company long before it came online.

I think we can expect a lot more of the ‘offline’ approach to privacy coming ‘online’ as we see more and more convergence.

Companies with substantial offline customer databases will be faced with developing one, single online/offline privacy statement or position.

After all, it would be hard to maintain one position for your print catalog and an entirely different one for your web site.

So what’s a company to do?

Well, the easiest option is to bring your offline policy online. Just like Lands’ End did.

Is this a good thing for the future of ecommerce?

I don’t think so.

But having raised the bar on privacy online, it’s going to take a lot more than smugness and wishful thinking to keep it there.

We’re going to have to demonstrate – and prove – that maintaining a higher standard of privacy for our customers is a sound business practice that will lead to higher profits.

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