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FTC Hits GeoCities On Privacy

Federal regulators Thursday accused an Internet company of lying to its customers about maintaining their privacy. The company, GeoCities, gives people free space to build Web sites if they answer questions seeking personal information.

In the first case involving Internet privacy rights before the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), the government said GeoCities released personal details about its customers to advertisers, in violation of its own promises.

The FTC said the company had said that, without permission, it wouldn't release information about a person's education, income, marital status, occupation, and personal interests.

"GeoCities misled its customers, both children and adults, by not telling the truth about how it was using their personal information," said Jodie Bernstein, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC.

The company's collection of Web pages ranks it among the top 10 most frequently visited places on the Internet.

As part of a settlement announced Thursday with the FTC, GeoCities agreed to rewrite its privacy statement on its own Web site, explaining what information it collects and how it distributes it.

The FTC also ordered GeoCities to obtain parental permission before collecting any personal data from children 12 and under. The government said GeoCities made it appear it was running its "GeoKidz Club" and contests directed at children, while the club and contests actually were organized by others who collected information from children.

GeoCities also must include for at least five years a "clear and prominent" link to the FTC's own Web site with educational materials about privacy.

GeoCities, based in Santa Monica, Calif., promotes itself as a community on the Internet, offering free Web pages in any of 40 themed areas, such as those dedicated to politics, entertainment, or sports.

In exchange, its more than 2 million customers give their name, street address, e-mail address, personal interests, education, occupation, and marital status. The company promises not to release personally identifiable data to others, but it does warn that it gives aggregate information to advertisers.

"This information was disclosed to third parties, who used it to target members for solicitations beyond those agreed to by the member," the FTC said.

Written by Ted Bridis