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Amazon.Com Employee Best-Seller Lists Raising Some Privacy Concerns

By Joseph Menn
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- Online bookstore Amazon.com has stunned Internet privacy advocates by posting on its Web site detailed information on which books, videos and music recordings are purchased by employees at hundreds of specific companies, schools and nonprofit groups.

One example: the best-selling book to Walt Disney Co. workers is: “Dancing Corndogs in the Night: Reawakening Your Creative Spririt.”

Well and good -- but does Disney want the world to know that No. 3 on the list is “Disney, the Mouse Betrayed”? And does the world need to know that No. 6 at Xerox’s Palo Alto (Calif.) Research Center is a diet book?

“It’s fun. People can see what other people are buying,” said Amazon spokesman Paul Capelli.

Capelli said no companies have complained about their inclusion in Amazon’s “Purchase Circles,” which the Seattle-based company began making available to all on its Web site Friday.

If companies do complain, Amazon isn’t promising to take them off the list. Indeed, Capelli said Amazon plans to expand the number of group listings, which are compiled from the server names on customer emails and by zip code, for geographic groupings.

But privacy advocates said the move sends the wrong message to consumers already concerned about how their Web habits are tracked, sold and used.

“In addition to being bad practice from a privacy perspective, I think it’s probably bad business,” said David Sobel, general counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington D.C. “Online companies should be making people feel comfortable about buying online.”

Disney declined to comment, as did other companies whose employee purchases were listed.

One can learn a lot about people from what books they read -- so much so that some companies may ask employees not to order from corporate email accounts, some experts said.

“There are competitive, proprietary and other interests that could be trampled on,” said Deirdre Mulligan, staff counsel of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a civil liberties group in Washington, D.C. “This potentially could rightly upset businesses who are concerned about what employee purchases might tell people about them.”

Amazon’s Capelli said such a reaction is unlikely.

“That sounds paranoid to me -- that people don’t want people to know what videos you want,” he said. In fact, there is a law against video stores disclosing what videos consumers rent. But that doesn’t apply to aggregated information like Amazon’s.

Amazon doesn’t sell customer information to third parties, instead using it to tailor its own sales approach.