British consumers who have registered with ETour.com will not be protected by UK law as the assets of the firm are sold to search engine AskJeeves, warns the Office of the Information Commissioner.
The struggling online tour site has been forced to sell its database of 2.2 million newsletter subscribers, along with the bulk of its assets to AskJeeves, despite a guarantee within its terms and conditions that it would not pass on its customers' personal details to a third party "for any reason, at any time, ever".
But the Office of the Information Commissioner -- formerly known as the Data Protection Commissioner -- confirms that because the database was acquired in the US, the settlement escapes British data protection laws regardless of the number of UK consumers who may be involved.
"The business structure of Internet companies is often complex, but in cases such as this you need to establish where the company's control of the data is coming from," said David Smith, assistant information commissioner. "The issue wouldn't fall under British law just because UK citizens are involved."
AskJeeves has said that every customer on the list -- which includes users' names, email addresses, ages and gender -- will be contacted and informed of the change in ownership, and will have the opportunity to opt out of the database.
The case adds to growing concern over the issue of consumer privacy on the Internet. The Consumers' Association is aware that companies based overseas are subject to data protection laws usually designed in the interest of business rather than the consumer.
"Data protection laws in the States are much less stringent than in Europe," said Alan Stephens, head of digital services at the Consumers' Association. "If people in the UK register their details on US sites, they need to take care to read the small print."
It is often difficult for consumers to know where a Web site is based, as generic domain name suffixes such as .com and .org can be used by companies located anywhere in the world. Last year, the Internet book retailer Amazon amended the privacy notice on its Web site to inform customers that the personal information they hand over could be passed on to other companies.
See also: ZDNet UK's Consumer News Section.
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