eBay Changes Users’ “Erroneous” Preferences to “Opt-Out”

Online auction giant eBay is raising some eyebrows over an apparent change of heart on its opt-in newsletter policy.

Earlier this week, eBay notified users that registered between April and November 2000 that their “opt-in” preferences for e-mails and other communications would be changed, requiring these users to accept marketing messages unless they reset their preferences.

The company evidently justifies this by saying that there was a error with its new user registration system that asked whether users wished to receive marketing communications from third parties: when users registered during this period, the default response was set to “No.” And eBay says this is a problem.

“…we have noticed that an error occurred during your registration process that prevented you from receiving these communications. Many of your Notification Preference defaults were set to ‘no’ rather than to ‘yes’, which means that unlike other eBay members, you’re not receiving these types of communications,” read the e-mail.

“We’d like to resolve this problem quickly and efficiently. Therefore, on 1/8/01, we returned all your Notification Preferences to the standard default of ‘yes’ to put you in line with the rest of the eBay community,” it read.

The policy change means that users’ defaults will revert to “Yes” for receiving “special promotions, offers and events”, “telemarketing … on behalf of eBay regarding eBay related products and services,” and “eBay’s product and service-related direct mail.”

EBay spokespeople did not return repeated phone calls Tuesday.

The company did say in the e-mail that it suggests users choose their own preferences, and would hold off sending e-mail marketing messages to the users affected by the change, until January 23.

Nevertheless, privacy advocates were irritated by the news.

“The defaults on Web forms to opt in to e-mail lists should always be set to ‘off.’ If eBay previously did this but now consider that default an error, they are degenerating towards spamming,” said Jason Catlett, president of anti-spam company Junkbusters.

Several other large Internet firms are also adopting stances that are raising privacy advocates’ ire. For example, Amazon.com changed its privacy policy last year so that customer information — like e-mail addresses — is now considered a sellable business asset. And giant America Online requires that customers opt-out yearly, or start receiving marketing e-mails.

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