Spitzer Reaches Internet Privacy Agreement With Altavista

Attorney General Spitzer today announced an agreement that ensures that one of the Internet's most popular websites will not disclose private information about its users to other companies.

The agreement with AltaVista, based in Palo Alto, California, came after it was learned that the company had unintentionally transferred the addresses of some of its users to an Internet marketing company that placed advertisements on AltaVista's website. The data transfer violated AltaVista's posted privacy policy, and prompted an investigation by the Attorney General's office.

AltaVista has agreed to enhance its privacy protections and disclosures and to pay the state of New York $70,000. In the future, should AltaVista ever decide to disclose information collected from consumers to third parties, it must inform consumers prior to collection not only of such disclosure, but also of the identities of the third parties to whom it may provide the information. AltaVista also confirmed that the company has upgraded its software to prevent any future unintended transfers of information about its users.

"This settlement will help clarify the rules of the road concerning privacy on the Internet," Spitzer said. "The privacy policy that AltaVista has agreed to adopt should now serve as a model for the rest of the industry. The Internet holds vast promise for both merchants and consumers, but its growth could be hampered as long as users fear that their personal information - such as their addresses, telephone numbers and purchase patterns - could be sold or disseminated without their knowledge or approval."

The privacy issue at AltaVista surfaced last year in connection with the company's popular Yellow Pages directory, which is visited by millions of users searching for information about businesses and services near their home or work address. In order to narrow the search for business listings, consumers were asked to provide their home addresses to AltaVista, and were given assurances that the information would not be disclosed to any third parties. However, a programming error caused the information to be inadvertently exposed to a third party company.

AltaVista did not profit from the data transfer and there is no evidence that the third party company used the information that it inadvertently received.

The agreement with AltaVista follows several recent privacy-related actions taken by the Attorney General with such leading Internet companies as InfoBeat and Toysmart. In each case, the Attorney General's office achieved greater levels of privacy protection for consumers.

The AltaVista case was handled by Ken Dreifach, Chief of Spitzer's Internet Bureau. Attorney General Spitzer also acknowledged the assistance of Internet security expert Richard Smith in conducting the investigation.