Scott D. writes:

"I read your piece in the Fort Walton Beach, Florida Daily News and immediately shared with my friends and co-workers (I use Yahoo as my desktop news home page at work!)

We use Bluelight as our ISP at home. They're affiliated with K-Mart. After your Yahoo piece I checked the privacy agreement of their user agreement and discovered they too are collecting and reporting all kinds of web data. The trick with them is you can only opt out of the promotional e-mails they offer you at registration. You cannot opt out of them collecting your web page data and sharing it with their "affiliates" and others with whom they have a business relationship.

Guess I'll be reevaluating my ISP provider!

Thanks for the great insight that got me curious."





Spoutin' Off: Yahoo's 'Web beacon' draws unwanted attention


By Michael E. Rau

April 4 2005

This week's column falls under the category of "You learn something every day..."

While surfing online for tech news recently, I came across a tidbit in a local "how to" column that really grabbed my attention. It referred to something employed by Yahoo, colloquially known as a "super cookie" or what it refers to as a "Web beacon." The columnist wrote that Yahoo was logging all my Internet activity and that I had given the company permission to do so.

Not so fast, said I. After all, I'm someone who advises others on Internet security, and I'm not so easily fooled. So off I went to the Yahoo Web site to research this implication - and sure enough, I learned that I was an unwitting accomplice to my own Net insecurity.

Here's the deal: When you create an account with Yahoo (like many people, I've had one for several years), you're asked to click on a button signifying that you agree to its terms for use of the service. Somewhere within their agreement, it says that unless you specifically tell Yahoo not to, it'll track and record all your Internet activity, not just that associated with the service. It does this by placing a small application on your hard drive that logs all the links you visit and then sends the data back to Yahoo. What then happens to that data is much less clear.

All subscription-based services have terms that you must agree to when you sign up. These agreements are generally composed of legal terms and other gobbledygook and are usually benign enough. But how many of us actually read these? We generally, and perhaps naively, rely on the service to fairly disclose what we're getting ourselves into before we agree to the terms.

In the case of Yahoo, I'm sure that within the text of the terms, it states that it'll be engaged in this data collection. And there's a procedure to opt out of this. It's not hard to do - just not clearly explained anywhere by Yahoo.

If, like me, you don't like the idea that some faceless company like Yahoo is collecting information about your private online activities, here's how to go into the settings for your Yahoo account and turn off the Internet browsing data-collection feature :

First, you'll need to log in to your Yahoo account. Next, put this URL into your browser's address window: http://pri vacy.yahoo.com/privacy/us/. This will take you to a Web page where Yahoo pretty much spells out its policies. Scroll down to the section about cookies, and you'll see a reference to something called "Web beacons." Click on that link, and it will take you to the page that explains how these things work. Scroll down a few paragraphs, and you'll see the words "opt out" highlighted as a link, which - if you click it - should execute an opt-out command. Note that you have to set the opt-out function on every computer from which you access Yahoo.

Don't get me wrong: I still like Yahoo and haven't chosen to close my account. And technically, it's done absolutely nothing wrong. But I am disappointed with the company for engaging in this kind of invasive practice without being more candid by informing consumers up front that they'll be monitored. It will make me much more careful in my scrutiny of Yahoo's business practices in the future.

Perhaps we need to take this type of consideration a step further.

Yahoo is as well-known and mainstream an Internet presence as any I can imagine. How many other online services do you suppose have a similar clause within their terms of use that allows them to collect your personal information? After all, it's generally written in legalese, and again, how many of us actually take the time to read the entire text of the agreement before clicking the "accept" button?

I don't know about you, but I'm going to be paying much closer attention to just what it is I'm agreeing to, as well as taking a retrospective look at some of the terms that I've agreed to previously with other Internet companies.

If you're aware of any such "idiosyncrasies" in other Internet companies' online usage terms, please drop me a note, so I can check them out and perhaps pass the information on in a future column.

But to be fair, it's as much my fault for not being more careful about just what it is to which I'm agreeing.

No doubt, we can all do a better job of scrutinizing how we conduct our activities online, particularly those which involve our personal information.

Better to learn that lesson through a relatively benign experience, rather than "the hard way" ...

Mike Rau is a mass-communications consultant in Virginia Beach. E-mail him at dpreaders@asoundidea.com.

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