usinesses, responding to lawmakers and consumers, say they are giving customers more ways than ever to control how their personal information is used and sold. But, in fact, many companies all but frustrate their customers' attempts to exercise that control.
Barbara Bechtold of Sacramento recounts the unending process of trying to keep companies from selling her e-mail address and the details of her credit card accounts, insurance policies and mortgage inquiries.
When she tried to tell Pacific Bell not to share information that some phone companies sell — including calling habits — she found herself confronted with a voice automation system maze.
"Push `1' for this, push `2' for this," she recalled. "Twenty different steps to say, `I don't want you to sell my information, please.' "
John Britton, a spokesman for Pacific Bell, a unit of SBC Communications, said the company tried to make the process simple and that it shared information only among affiliated companies and did not sell calling data to other companies.
Still, Ms. Bechtold said that most people, faced with too much twiddling and clicking, "will get disgusted and say, `Oh, forget it!' rather than try to get off those lists."
For some companies, that might be the point. Facing new laws in half a dozen states and the threat of legislation in other states and in Congress, businesses have claimed to give customers more control over the use of their personal information.
But these efforts are subject to abuse. Some online marketers, including some offering low, low mortgage rates, naughty pictures or seminars on dental office management, simply lie.
"You are receiving this e-mail because you opted-in by requesting information or requested to receive special offers from an online purchase," reads one message offering online marketing services — spam to help people produce spam.
Did you really ask for the message? Probably not. But many online businesses claim you gave explicit permission to receive them.
Some states are taking on what they considerthe most blatant lies about whether a consumer gives permission to share or sell an e-mail address and other information. New York State has sued an online marketer, MonsterHut, over unsolicited e-mail messages, which MonsterHut insisted were sent with permission. A decision in the case is pending. Among more mainstream businesses, drafters of privacy policies have ways of confusing and frustrating customers.
Consumer privacy advocates have complained about the practices at Yahoo, where members who want to tell the company not to spread around their e-mail addresses and interests or to send them e-mail offers had to click through more than a dozen boxes that were checked to accept the mailings. And even after this time-consuming process, the company "may update this policy," according to the site.
"It's hard to imagine a greater exercise in futility," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington.
The company has said that it values the privacy of its customers and notifies them of any changes in its privacy or marketing policies.
At the Direct Marketing Association site (www.the-dma.org), consumers who want to remove their name from many junk mail lists find that they must sign up by mail, or spend $5 and provide a credit card number to accomplish the same task over the Internet. Putting one's name on a do-not-call list for telemarketers requires a second letter or $5 Internet payment. Louis Mastria, a spokesman for the organization, said the charge was "just to defray costs," not an attempt to deter consumers.
Janice Abrahams, a Web site designer who operates an Internet site (www.privacyparts.com) devoted to online privacy practices, recently gave up after weeks of trying to create a page that would identify online services by their privacy practices. "I feel like I've been nailing Jell-O to a tree — with my head," she said.
What is going on at many Web sites is no mystery to Penn Gillette, the magician and former technology columnist for PC Computing Magazine, which is now defunct. The choice offered is no choice at all, he said, when the decision is gently coerced before or after the fact in what is known as a "force" or a "magician's choice." As a rule of thumb, when someone asks you to pick a card, any card, he said, "if the guy is wearing a top hat, he's not giving you a real choice."