Take account of data abuse

If it's difficult or impossible to close an account with an e-commerce site, wise users may refuse to open one at all
Written by Leader , Contributor

One of the side-effects of the Internet boom has been the number of Web accounts that now have to be juggled. Share trading, social networking and shopping are all popular online activities, but people can't join the party without setting up an account.

And rightly so — any serious e-commerce site would want to know who it's dealing with, especially if it wants to stay secure and protect its customers in the face of cybercrime.

But this proliferation of online accounts puts a burden on users. Typically, their main challenge has been remembering their various usernames and passwords while fretting that a malicious hacker might break in and steal their personal data or money. Now, though, Privacy International (PI) has shone a spotlight on another problem — once created, an account can be frustratingly difficult to get rid of.

PI is particularly damning about Amazon.co.uk, which appears to be the Reader's Digest of the Internet. Sign up for an account and it exists for evermore, regardless of whether anyone wants their shopping and banking details on Amazon's servers in perpetuity.

eBay also came in for a slating from PI. It took several trained researchers an age before they could track down the account-deletion function, which was buried Shergar-like in the dark depths of the site.

PI has managed to get the UK's Information Commissioner to take a look at this issue, but given his lack of success fighting spam we're not confident of immediate action.

But e-commerce sites cannot afford to be complacent. Customers will not be happy about their data being preserved for ever — and there's no evidence that even an unfortunate death would prompt these people into action.

User-centric sites such as YouTube and MySpace were praised by PI for having a prominent 'delete account' button on their account-management page. It's depressing to realise that dot-com giants such as eBay and Amazon compare so poorly against the rising stars of Web 2.0.

In today's world, it's vital that people can control their data. Sites who abuse this right would be well advised to mend their ways quickly, otherwise they risk serious damage to their revenue streams.

For savvy Web users, the privacy and protection of their data is paramount. They will no more willingly join a site that insists on preserving their information forever than they will set up home in a deathtrap. Sites that don't provide proper account controls are like tall buildings without fire escapes — best avoided.

Amazon and eBay are keen to keep their customers, but by clinging too tight they risk destroying these relationships altogether.

Editorial standards