DoubleClick's Latest Purchase Raises More Hackles With Online Privacy Advocates

The acquisition of Opt-In EMail.com, for an undisclosed amount of stock, will give the online advertising network a huge database of personal information.
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Online advertising network

DoubleClick

(DCLK)

said Wednesday that it was buying

Opt-In EMail.com

, raising additional ire from online privacy advocates.

The acquisition, for an undisclosed amount of stock, will give DoubleClick a huge database of personal information, which it could match to Internet users' offline purchasing behavior and to the Web sites they view, an online privacy group said.

The New York-based company, which has proposed that the industry regulate itself to protect privacy, said it would never do such a thing.

DoubleClick uses so-called cookies, or markers, to monitor its clients' advertisements as they are viewed by individual Internet accounts. Privacy advocates cried foul over the company's $1.7 billion acquisition last week of

Abacus Direct

(ABDR)

, which owns a database of information about millions of catalog customers.

Opt-In EMail.com delivers email advertisements for clients like

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

and

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

(MGM) - Get Report

. The closely held company, which is based in Boulder, Colo., also gathers lists of demographic information like gender, age and occupation by offering Internet users cash prizes and vacations.

"It is insidious because people don't understand the extent of the data that is owned about them," said Jason Catlett, president of

Junkbusters

, an online privacy advocacy group. "It's the missing link between cookies and offline behavior. They just bought a huge pen of guinea pigs."

By sending Web-based email to people on Opt-In EMail.com's list, the company could match its cookie to the person who opens the email, Catlett said. To register the email address, that person would already have provided demographic information.

That information could easily be matched to data from the lists of catalog buyers, he said.

DoubleClick announced a group of products called

DARTmail

on Monday, intended to provide email campaigns for advertisers and publishers.

Last month, the company joined nine other Internet advertising and database companies to propose self-regulatory policies. Those would allow consumers to find out what information the companies are collecting about them and turn off the collection devices.

Eli Chalfin, vice president of DoubleClick and manager of the DARTmail program, said customers are notified that the information they give Opt-In Email will be used for advertising.

In fact, the company's name comes from the fact that customers must submit, or "opt in," to those terms. He compared DoubleClick to the

U.S. Postal Service

, saying the company sees information like return addresses and zip codes, but does not save it.

"We're only matching data where customers have been given appropriate notice and choice," Chalfin said. "Though technically some of this stuff is feasible, it doesn't mean we're going to do it. Our intention is to be good online citizens."

Jim Nail, an Internet analyst for

Forrester Research

, which studies technology trends for corporations, said the privacy concerns are real, but pointed out that they are industrywide.

"The big issue here is how much consumer information are we going to allow to have in one place in one time at one company," he said.

DoubleClick subscribes to research reports that Forrester provides to many businesses.

The government, the industry and privacy advocates will have to decide where to draw the line on how much information one company can maintain, he said. For example, the line could be drawn between banner advertisement providers and email companies or simply between online and offline advertisers.

Shares of DoubleClick rose 10 3/8, or 6%, on Wednesday, closing at 170 7/16. So far this year, the stock is up more than threefold.

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