In the past few years several news stories have emerged detailing the foul practice of information selling, which involves one host company selling the private details of their customers to marketing research groups and other potentially harmful companies. Aside from the obvious problem of such a practice, it should be stated that companies who do business on the internet often store information from customers for their own (usually) non-abusive or unethical purposes. For example, online businesses often use technology to track and better understand their customers and while this is not necessarily a negative practice within itself, it does raise certain ethical questions.
One of the main concerns of consumers worried about unethical business practices in ecommerce, especially when they make purchases online, is that their personal information is being distributed to any number of marketing research or other groups. This is a legitimate privacy concern, but it is one that many companies have gone out of their way to preface by means of extended privacy statements. For the purposes of this examination of potentially abusive or unethical business practices in e-commerce, Amazon.com will be studied. This decision was made because Amazon has branched out to sell a variety of products on a truly impressive scale. As a result of their size and success, their privacy information as stated on their site must be closely examined and any traces of abusive or wrongful information collection pointed out. The findings were that Amazon goes far beyond a simple few statements in their “legal” section and puts all of the information the average consumer needs to know in clear view, written in plain English, and free from the legal jargon that plagues many other smaller websites. After considering this case, one might say that Amazon’s privacy information set-up is optimal and should be a model for other websites who believe in the same ideas.
Without legal protection for consumers, Amazon could theoretically take all of the information it gathers about its customers and farm it out to other similar companies for a high price. This would allow other groups to see what items people searched for, bought, and whether or not they returned for more. As a worse case scenario, they could also give away the full names and addresses that are required for the ordering process so that consumers would be included in junk mail and other lists based on the interests they exhibited as a result of their purchases. In many ways, the information collected by Amazon.com through their website could be used for any number of purposes that might be potentially harmful to the consumer or visitor. In order to avoid a barrage of customer questions, Amazon clearly states what information it collects and how it is or can be used. By setting up a plainly worded page that is directly accessible off their site, Amazon tells customers exactly what information it collects.
One of the most important tools at the consumer’s disposal is knowledge and by placing a list of what information is collected and by what means, the consumer can decide whether or not to purchase from the retailer if privacy is especially important and can know exactly what is collected. For example, on the Amazon.com website in a section for consumers (not lawyers) the company admits that they do store information from past searches, discussion board posts, e-mail communication between the customer and the company, and the list of addresses and names to which past merchandise has been shipped. While some of this information stays in the system, Amazon.com recommends to its customers that they clear their browser’s “cookies” to get rid of secondary information that is not stored in the Amazon.com database. They also tell consumers that their IP address as well as other information is stored to assist with future searches for other products but that it is never sold to any outside parties. Amazon does admit that they do use the gathered information to help with other purchases but they state in several places throughout the website (on multiple pages) that they refuse to give away or sell customer information. In the same area they do admit that they have outside shipping facilities where potentially sensitive information about consumers may be sent but that these companies and outside contractors are under strict orders (and one would assume laws) prohibiting them from making any use of this data. In general, by having a page that is in simple language and details the way their information system works, Amazon is able to provide suitable verbal and thus legally binding proof of their practices. By admitting what happens to the information in words the consumer can understand and offering them a chance to erase information about searches and other items, they show they are willing to protect the privacy consumers value.
Aside from privacy concerns, one the biggest threats facing online consumers is identity theft. In theory, companies could acquire customer credit card numbers quite easily and use them however they wished. While certainly there are many laws in place to prevent this from occurring, it is still feasible. Companies must tell consumers how they can be protected from hackers and even internal, fraud and so Amazon, in addition to describing what information is collected and how it is transmitted, Amazon offers customers several ways to protect their information by mentioning closing browser windows, deleting cookies, and editing their customer profile. After detailing the steps the consumer can take to keep himself safe from privacy problems, Amazon makes a direct statement about how it protects this information from intruders. They state that use state-of-the-art SSL software (Secure Sockets Layer) which automatically encrypts the credit card and other information to make it invisible to malicious outside parties. Furthermore, they state that only the last 5 digits of the customer’s credit card are stores when confirming orders and that the passwords can easily be secured and changed by providing adequate information. By making their security measures known, Amazon can legally protect themselves in cases of identity theft and also makes it clear to their consumers that they will not be doing anything abusive or unethical with private, and especially financial information. Although one would realize that a large company such as Amazon would be unable to go on systematically engaging in credit card fraud, there are a number of companies that do not go far enough to make their security policies clear. This is a necessary statement for consumers as well as the company and again, should be a model for other e-businesses.