Digital MarketingStrategiesWhen Business Opportunity Collides With Privacy Needs

When Business Opportunity Collides With Privacy Needs

Want a little lift? Read the Success Stories in Yahoo!'s Personals. But before the warm and fuzzies take over, read a story of a different sort. By the time it's over, a woman finds her name stolen, her birth date falsified, and her safety jeopardized.

There are many ways for people to use Yahoo to “connect” with each other — chats, searches, greeting cards. Two of the most popular, Yahoo Member Directory and Yahoo Personals, enable Yahoo to link individuals looking for love.

Indeed, one of the more uplifting places to surf on the Internet is Yahoo Personals. On a page entitled “Success Stories,” you can scroll through photos of vibrant young couples and story after inspiring story of how they were brought together in eternal love by Yahoo Personals. “Thank you… for allowing me a way to find my soul mate and making my life complete,” writes one woman. “I met my husband Ron through Yahoo Personals,” says another. And so it goes, through more than 40 such stories.

The Story Not There

There’s one recent story involving Yahoo’s connect power that you likely won’t read about on the Yahoo site, though. It’s the story of a single woman — a friend who is understandably reticent about revealing her identity. It is a serious tale about how Yahoo’s desire to maximize revenues collides with an open society’s needs for some minimum standards of personal privacy.

This woman — I’ll call her Gail — is a professional in her 40s who is active on the dating scene. One day recently, she received an email from a man who lives in her town and said he was interested in meeting her. He had learned about Gail from her Member Profile that he had likely searched seeking out women interested in “Dating” and “Relationships.” He knew that she lived in his town, and he said he knew, among other things, that she liked having wild sex in the back of pickup trucks.

There was only one problem with this whole scenario: Gail never posted her profile on Yahoo

Once she received the email, Gail was able to get the respondent to write her the screen name and URL of her profile so that she could look it up. It contained not only information about the town and state she lived in and her supposed sexual preferences but also her full name, professional email address, the URL of a web site she uses for promoting contract work she does, and her age (misstated). She then feigned ignorance to get Yahoo to provide “her” Yahoo password and ID so that she could attempt to delete the phony posting or at least edit out the offensive material and private information.

But Yahoo didn’t allow her to make any changes to the site’s information or delete it because only the imposter knew “her” secret password, back-up email, and the phony birth date he or she had given. And Gail had no idea who might have placed the posting.

Out of Sight on the Site

Knowing my background in media and marketing, Gail called me at this point and asked my advice. She was panicked. “I’ve been exposed to every guy looking for cheap sex, and I have no way to protect myself,” she said. I suggested she immediately contact Yahoo public relations and let them know about this serious breach of her privacy. Surely they would want to remedy the situation.

It turns out that Yahoo doesn’t post any contact information for its public relations function — or any other executive functions, for that matter — on its site. Indeed, even a contact at a major technology publication told me that no one on his staff knows how to reach Yahoo public relations, if it actually exists. The company is curiously anonymous in this arena.

The only way Gail could find a phone number was to dial Northern California directory assistance; she was given a customer service number. She spoke with a “customer care” representative there, who would only give his first name, Corey. “I’m the only Corey here,” he said by way of explaining his desire to protect something so private as his last name.

She described the situation to Corey and awaited what she expected would be his concerned response and his quick approach to getting the fraudulent posting removed. (By this time, she had received an email response from a second “neighbor” who was intrigued by Gail’s supposed sexual preferences.)

Privacy Violations

Corey was definitely upset, but, remarkably, he was upset with Gail. “You hacked into someone’s account, you know,” he said. “That’s a violation of our privacy rules. And let me give you some advice: Don’t take the law into your own hands.” Once Gail calmed down from her outrage over being blamed for being the victim, she tried to pin Corey down as to what needed to be done to get the posting taken down that day.

Well, Corey wanted to see an enlarged, faxed copy of her driver’s license to confirm that she was who she said she was and a signed statement disclaiming the ad. Then, once he was satisfied, it would take at least 48 hours to remove the posting. Interesting, since the person who made the posting didn’t have to provide any such background information and got Gail’s profile posted online nearly instantaneously. And no, Corey said, this wasn’t the first time this sort of thing happened; it is becoming increasingly common.

A week and several angry phone calls later (and after she received emails from several more interested men), Yahoo finally removed the posting. Oh, and Gail is still awaiting an apology from Yahoo Gail also determined in the interim that the person who posted “her” personal was most likely a disgruntled ex-boyfriend with whom she had broken up shortly before the posting was made.

A Problem in Need of Serious Fixing

What’s wrong with this picture, aside from the fact that an innocent woman was subjected to embarrassment, anxiety, and physical danger?

Most seriously, Yahoo is knowingly aiding and abetting a practice becoming known as “Internet stalking.” All those Personals Success Stories are leading to more and more personals and profiles being posted, which increases traffic and helps sell advertising. Yahoo has clearly decided to sacrifice the privacy of individuals such as Gail in the interests of maximizing its online revenues.

(For those wondering what Yahoo could do to protect individuals such as Gail without seriously impairing the personals and profiles, here’s one suggestion: Require a faxed copy of the poster’s driver’s license plus a $5 credit card charge against the poster’s credit card to be refunded a week later so as to keep the service free. Children looking to set up free email accounts could use a parent’s driver’s license and credit card.)

Also disturbing about this entire episode is Yahoo’s strategy of remaining as unapproachable as possible when problems or questions come up. Like many corporations, it arranges its web site seemingly with an eye to making it virtually impossible for site visitors to communicate with corporate officials at any level. (See my article on this subject, “Specializing in the Impersonal Touch.”) That might have been OK when Yahoo was a few college students running a cool web site. Now that Yahoo is publicly held and the most visited site around, the time has come for it to begin behaving responsibly.

Increasingly, corporations of all types operating on the Internet are going to have to make hard decisions about balancing business opportunities against individuals’ privacy needs. All the Yahoo Personals Success Stories in the world don’t matter if innocent individuals are subject to infringements of their most basic rights to privacy — and safety.

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