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Source: The New York Times

Posted on May 22, 2002

      Internet privacy is like the weather. Everyone complains about it, and no one does anything about it.

      The latest example involves users of Yahoo, the vast Internet portal that set off howls of protest when it abruptly changed its marketing policy in March. Suddenly, Yahoo granted itself the right to send advertising messages to tens of millions of its users who had previously asked to receive none. The blanket permission went beyond e-mail to include postal mailings and telemarketing phone calls.

      Immediately, privacy advocates reacted with criticism, and outraged postings flooded message boards all over the Internet.

      But for all the smoke, there was little fire of reaction, according to a study conducted by comScore, a research firm that monitors the Web pages viewed by more than a million Internet users.

      Yahoo's changes did get some users' attention. In the four weeks from March 25 to April 21, nearly a million Internet users in the United States looked at Yahoo's new privacy policy. That figure represents 1 percent of Internet users in the United States and was up sharply from the preceding four weeks, when only 0.3 percent of Yahoo users read its privacy policy.

      Slightly more people, 1.1 million, visited the page Yahoo had set up where users could "opt out" by telling the site not to send e-mail or other messages. That page did not exist before the portal's policy change.

      But only 73,000 users, comScore projects, considered ending their relationship with Yahoo by visiting the page that actually cancels their Yahoo accounts, which can include e-mail and other services. That was fewer, even, than the month before, when 114,000 users went to the page. (ComScore is unable to tell if the visitors to the page actually do push the button to close out their Yahoo accounts.)

      Srinija Srinivasan, Yahoo's editor in chief, confirmed that Yahoo's marketing changes had led to action by a very small portion of its users.

      "You will always have a few very vocal people," she said. "But in the end, that a very small fraction of 1 percent of our users contacted us underscores, as always, the scale on which we do business."

      Still, Christopher M. Kelly, who was a privacy lawyer with the Internet service Excite@Home, which is now defunct, says the seemingly low number of users who actually read Yahoo's policy or considered changing their options understated the effect on its reputation.

      "People will keep their e-mail addresses at Yahoo," he said, "but they will just stop using them if they feel Yahoo doesn't take their privacy seriously and doesn't protect them from spam."

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