RealNetworks rethinks privacy plan

RealNetworks works with industry privacy monitor to "rebuild trust with its consumers"

In the wake of an embarrassing privacy flap, RealNetworks committed Monday to work with industry privacy monitor TRUSTe on a five-point plan to "rebuild trust with its consumers." The plan is expected to be fully implemented within the next thirty days.

TRUSTe launched an official investigation into RealNetwork's data collection practices after it was revealed in late October that the makers of the popular RealJukebox digital music player were secretly gathering information about users' listening habits using the globally unique identifiers (GUID). Although Real claims the information was never used and that it has since been made "unavailable," the resulting publicity left many consumers concerned for their privacy.

As part of its new privacy plan, Real will submit audits of its privacy practices from TRUSTe and another third party, as yet unnamed. The audit will verify that the RealJukebox GUIDs have been disabled and that Real is upholding the terms of its newly updated privacy statement. The report will be made public once the audit is completed.

Beginning with Monday's release of RealPlayer 7.0, the company will make GUIDs anonymous and require consumers to opt-in to enable the use of this feature.

"By opting in there's an opportunity to present a more personalised, relevant set of information," said Pete Zaballos, Real's director of systems marketing. "It could eliminate unwanted or unnecessary promotions or marketing."

The company also plans to appoint a new "privacy officer" in the next few days. This person will serve as its official liaison with TRUSTe. Additionally, Real Networks will work with TRUSTe to create consumer education programs about Internet privacy issues.

"It's not something we're telling them they have to do. It's a voluntary thing," said TRUSTe's Dave Steer when discussing Real's compliance with the agreement. "But I'm not concerned about them fulfilling their end of the bargain."

Real's Zaballos insisted that the company has learned the error of its ways. "The most damaging thing that would happen if we don't follow through on our promise would be we'd violate our trust with our consumers. That's the thing we value most and we take most seriously."

Even Jason Catlett, president of, who was highly critical of Real's data gathering practices, acknowledged that "they seem to have all the right elements," after hearing of the new agreement with TRUSTe.

By going after the issue of data collection through RealJukebox software, TRUSTe is stepping beyond its original mandate to monitor Web site privacy issues, and it's expanding its oversight to software privacy statements. A new, "TRUSTe approved" software seal, similar to the seal posted on Web sites, could be available to compliant companies within the next six months.

"The time is ripe now to evolve the program," TRUSTe's Steer said. "Regardless of whether you're collecting information on a Web site or from software, you must disclose these practices to the consumer."

As a first step in expanding its oversight, TRUSTe will begin forming an advisory committee of people within and outside of the software industry. Based on its cooperation regarding the RealJukebox issue, Steer says that RealNetworks is likely to be the first company to receive the new software privacy approved seal.

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