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Burpee Cultivates Garden.com's Clients

Burpee Holding Company is preparing to contact customers plucked from its purchase of Garden.com's brand assets.

At a time when Internet privacy issues are being closely scrutinized, officials at Burpee and Garden.com say they are confident that no privacy rights have been violated with the transfer of customer data.

According to Warminster, Pa.-based Burpee.com, it has acquired Garden.com's URL and customer names, email addresses, addresses and order history. However, no credit card or bank information has exchange hands.

Garden.com's original privacy policy is key in distinguishing whether privacy rights are being tampered with, noted Joel Winston, the FTC's assistant director for advertising practices. "If the original privacy statement made an explicit promise that they would not sell information, that would raise concerns," he said.

Although a full copy of now-defunct Garden.com's original privacy policy could not be located, a partial copy, found here, includes the following statement: "Garden.com truly believes in keeping your confidential information just that...confidential! We will only use your personal information for the purposes of enhancing your Garden.com experience."

The transfer of data between Burpee.com and Garden.com is not as severe an issue as the Toysmart debacle, observed Richard Smith, chief technology officer of the Privacy Foundation.

"There has been a lot of discussion regarding the transfer of data when a company goes out of business and I certainly expect to see more of this because every day we lose another dot-com company, it seems," he said. "In the case of Toysmart, the company sold its data to the highest bidder and that crossed way over the line.

"This is a borderline situation," he noted. "They do offer an opt out, I would prefer to see an opt in, but this seems to be okay. It depends on Garden.com's original privacy policy, but I don't think there is too much to be concerned about here."

In a prepared statement, Burpee and Garden.com had this to say:

"The transfer of an individual's customer/member information is subject to providing prior notice and providing the individual the right to exclude his or her individual information."

To alert patrons to the change of ownership, Garden.com e-mailed all of its customers on January 18, 2001, to let them know about the purchase and inform them that no financial information would be transferred.

Further, a notice posted on the Garden.com site gives customers a chance to opt out of potential burpee.com communications. A message addressing the customer data exchange stated: "Burpee will use the information only to contact you about Burpee products, special offers and gardening news. In keeping with Burpee traditions and Garden.com's privacy policy, your customer information will not be rented or released to third parties without your permission."

"The transfer of your information to Burpee is conditioned upon providing you with this notice of transfer and the opportunity to exclude your information from the transfer," according to the message.

Those who preferred to be excluded from Burpee mailings were urged to click on an "unsubscribe" link prior to January 25, 2001. If clients did not reply by that time, their information was officially transferred to Burpee.com.

Winston of the FTC noted that the organization has not deemed that one-week opt-out notice is sufficient in cases when data ownership changes. "However, we do want to see that people are being allowed a reasonable notice and choice in that siutation," he said.

A spokesperson for Burpee wa