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June 05, 2009

Fix The Problem, Not the Blame

Jun

05

2009

So, some of you might have read about the recent FTC settlement with Sears http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2009/06/sears.shtm. There have been a number of questions about this and since we believe in being open and honest in our community, I thought it would be helpful to give a little more background on this story as well as give you all a sense of where we stand.

 

The history – about two years ago, we ran a research project on consumer web behavior. We wanted to understand more about the patterns of web surfing and how people search for products and services online so we could figure how to better serve our customers (what are issues they have when shopping online, what do they look for, where do they like to shop). So, we recruited a small group of consumers to participate in a panel through one of our research vendors and gave them a small amount of money for their participation. As part of the study we asked participants to download software that would anonymously follow their behavior online.

 

Sounds ominous, and for some people it would seem very big brother, but we tried to be as open and sensitive as possible given that a lot of the rules and best practices on the web are still evolving. In fact, we actually thought we were doing all the right things: notifying participants of the terms of the study upfront, warning them that they would need to download software that would monitor their web behavior, assuring them it was anonymous, making it clear that they could terminate their participation at any time, giving them instructions on how to remove any software and providing help if they needed it. And when bloggers first questioned the project, we even worked with web watchdog Stopbadware.org to revise all of our notifications and messaging to participants to make sure we were transparent http://www.stopbadware.org/reports/reportdisplay?reportname=myschcomm01082008

 

The facts are that we went to extremes to protect any personal information and no personal information was ever compromised: participation was anonymous, no personal information was ever viewed directly by/shared with anyone, and all information was encrypted. And when the study was over, all software was removed and all data was destroyed long before anyone told us to.

 

Okay, we wanted to learn more about consumers online, but we never intended to “dupe” or “spy” on people. In truth the FTC’s issue was focused more when and how we notified participants that we were tracking.  It was not that we failed to notify participants.  We have taken their criticisms to heart. As a result we are all better for it. I don’t think this is a bad lesson to learn and I think it focuses attention on the more general need to improve the way we all handle personal information. At a time when so much data is collected and distributed about us, privacy seems to be at a premium these days. The pace of technology is also accelerating and it is often difficult for our institutions and lawmakers to stay ahead of it all. A good place to get involved and discuss such issues by the way is BadwareBusters.org.

 

I think I saw in one of the articles on this topic that stated that  “Sears was unapologetic”. I don’t think that is the case at all. Whenever you mess up you should say so. I definitely would apologize for any concern or appearance of impropriety. Integrity is essential when building relationships. So, let me say unequivocally that we are sorry for any breach of trust that this may have caused. It wasn’t our intention to do anything that would damage our credibility with customers, and that is why we now have a place for people to voice their concerns, issues and ideas. We want to keep the dialog going, so please keep the feedback coming (even when it is something that is tough to hear). Our commitment is that if we do something wrong (and let’s face it we will make mistakes), we will fix it.

Cheers


Rob Harles, VP Community

 

P.S. I thought this was an interesting article and sums up some of the issues

Government Privacy Hearings

 

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