More On Plaxo, Privacy and Opting Out

This is likely to be the last exchange on Plaxo: Hopefully some of the issues that have concerned me and readers have been cleared up by this and other recent posts.

Plaxo have kindly added a comment in reply to my posting on how to avoid Plaxo, in which they’ve pointed out that they have added an opt-out feature, meaning that instead of receiving endless ‘reminders’ to update your contacts from users, you can avoid either specific or all such requests via a link in the update email. (This link takes you to a page offering three options: Blocking all update requests from that person, using an auto-reply feature I mentioned in the previous posting, or a ‘permanent opt-out’.)

This is good news, and thanks for pointing this out. Plaxo says in the comment, ”It’s right there in every Update Request sent and has been provided by Plaxo for some time now.” However, I’ve gone back through Plaxo updates requests and readers’ mail on the issue and can only find Plaxo update requests sent to me in December to have included this feature. Unless I’m mistaken, prior to that there was no readily obvious way to opt out, and I have received complaints as recently as October of readers receiving multiple update requests with no visible method of avoiding future ones. (The webpage that refers to this feature does not indicate when the option was added, but says the page was updated on December 23.) In emailed responses to questions, Plaxo’s Stacy Martin says this opt-out became a standard option in November.

I accept that Plaxo now makes it easier to non-users to opt out of future requests, and I can readily understand that it’s difficult to find the right balance. On the one hand you don’t want to bug people who don’t want to be bugged; on the other, the only way to do this is for those who want to opt out to register all their known email addresses with Plaxo, since the company has chosen to use email addresses as the best way to recognise and store individual records. If users want to opt out, some sort of record needs to be kept of their wanting to opt out, in the same way a spammer is (supposedly) bound to keep a record of people who don’t want to receive more spam from them.

That said, this opt-out feature could be easier to find on the Plaxo website. It’s not mentioned on the front page, as far as I can see. On the support page linked by Plaxo’s Trust Officer I could find no mention of it, or direct link there. It was not on the page of frequently asked questions. You can find information about the opt-out feature by, among other possible ways, typing in ‘opt-out’ or ‘optout’ into the search support box selecting either in the ‘all search topics’ option or the ‘Information for IT departments’ option. Performing the same search in the (more logical, in my view) ‘Troubleshooting’ or ‘Security and Privacy’ categories will not provide this link — except tangentially, for example at the bottom of one page referring to the question ‘Does Plaxo send spam to my contacts?‘. (Plaxo’s Martin demurs, saying “In looking at the traffic flow on our web site, we’ve found the large number of users looking for assistance go straight to using the search within the Help Center and search on all topics rather than browsing around or searching on a subset of topics… Searching for “opt-out”, “stop”, “opt”, “no mail”, “out”, “optout” all provide users the proper information on how to stop receiving update requests.”)

Finally, if you’ve made it to the opt-out page – or clicked on the opt-out link provided in the update requests I mentioned at the start — you’ll be warned against using this feature. Click on the link in an email and you’ll be told ‘If you choose this option, friends and contacts with important update e-mails will no longer be able to contact you using Plaxo’. On the opt-out page itself, you’ll be told, in bold:  ’Note that by permanently opting-out, friends and business associates can no longer request your latest information or send you their latest contact information’.

I find the wording of both messages somewhat alarmist to the casual user: Both seem to suggest that somehow people will not be able to contact anyone who accepts this option. I believe the wording could be better constructed to make clear that accepting this option is ONLY going to remove them from future Plaxo emails and not have any more disastrous impact on their social, business or family life. If someone has gotten this far to opting out, I think Plaxo have probably lost them as a potential customer and they should give up gracefully.

All this said, and despite some residual concerns about Plaxo’s practices, I remain a Plaxo user and have, on balance, found it to be very useful. It appears that Plaxo has been responsive to user concerns and tried to hone its approach. But there’s clearly some ways to go, and, at least on the opt-out issue, I think Plaxo could be clearer, by at least

  • posting a link on the home page,
  • marking it clearly on the support page and
  • by avoiding language on the opt-out page itself that may confuse or deter the casual user.

Plaxo’s Martin says they’ve already made some changes to accomodate these suggestions, which I emailed to her before posting here. It’s good to see that they are responsive to these and other concerns: Another feature that bugged readers, if my mailbag is anything to go by, was the way Plaxo kept a record of how many update requests were sent to any non-user, even if they weren’t from the same source. This kind of intrusiveness raised hackles, understandably, in that Plaxo appeared to be targetting prospective users and keeping tabs on them. Stacy says this feature was dropped last November.

31. January 2004 by jeremy
Categories: Software, apps | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 8 comments

Comments (8)

  1. Yes, we made ALL outgoing update messages include opt-out in the footer. Putting opt-out links in the footer of the message IS the accepted and proper thing to do.

    Thanks for your suggestions on improving our FAQ. And, yes it makes sense to have a link to opt-out from our front page.

    Just to be clear:

    1. we are not hiding opt-out — the message iteself is the appropriate best place to give access.

    2. so we try to convince people looking at opt-out to consider the benefits of using plaxe one more time before they opt-out — I don’t think that this is anything to apologize about (considering the variety of slimey approaches that exist in the world), and I would expect any smart business person to do this. Most important, is that we don’t mislead, lie, or trick. $0.02…

  2. P.S. Stacy is a “he” (former Hawaii State yo-yo champion!). While he is very sexy, I don’t see demur. 🙂

  3. I wanted to provide an update on some of the changes we’ve made based on the feedback we’ve received.

    Visitors to our web site can now find “opt-out” information in the more logical subcategory of “Security and Privacy” in addition to the other areas that were previously mentioned.

    We’ll also be adding a link to opt-out information on our home page as well as raising the visibility on our support front page.

    And finally, my tagline below.

    Thanks,

    Stacy
    ‘on the Internet, no one knows you’re really a guy’

  4. I don’t think that Plaxo is out to harm anyone. But the potential for harm is so indemic to this type of system that it’s hard not to take a hard-line against them.

    I wrote this article expressing my concerns:
    http://www.radicalapathy.com/mt/archives/journal/000129.html

    It’s a bit harsh, but I feel violated when someone puts personal information about me in some database.

    If they stored that kind of information about me on their cell-phone and lost it i would be upset. why should I feel more secure now? Faith in Plaxo?

  5. Plaxo emails are with intent deceptive. They purposely make the average user think that the update info is going back to thier friend or business contact. I knew enough to check the header and see that it was going back to Plaxo, and not my friend. I studied business law, and this is, in my humble opinion, a case of 100% willful & deceptive business practice.
    I also thinks the very tiny small print for opt out at the bottom of the email is deceptive.

  6. By default our mail program is set to display plain text, not HTML. No opt-out link appears in the plain text version of the message. Only if I choose HTML do I see an opt-out link — and most of our users would not bother to view a message in HTML if they can already read it in plain text. The opt-out option should be readily apparent in both versions of the message.

  7. Plaxo’s intent may be good but the following issues make Plaxo a VERY BAD idea:

    1. People are putting other peoples private details onto an on-line database; whether the other person likes it or not!
    The person whose details have been posted must contact the poster to request them to remove their details. Permission should be obtained PRIOR to posting personal details.

    2. Plaxo’s Outlook add-on downloads details from the Outlook address book, but does not specifiy which details are downloaded. This can include such details as:
    – nickname
    – spouse’s name
    – anniversary date
    – profession
    – manager’s name

    3. Plaxo is recording relationships between people.
    Plaxo goes way beyond a global address book, it is recording a web of links between people. This is an extremely powerful tool and very dangerous if misused.

    4. Any action on the part of the person whose details have been posted confirms, ata minimum, their e-mail address.

    5. Plaxo’s thorough audit trail means that even if records are deleted, the original inforamtin can still be obtained it can still from the audit history in the database.

    In summary,
    – Private information is collected without the permission of the individual concerned.
    – This information can include non-contact details such as nick name, spouses name, etc.
    – Even if this information is deleted it will still be recorded in Plaxo’s audit records.
    – a web of relationships is being recorded that makes this database much more powerfull than any address book or mailing list.

    Plaxo’s intentions may be good, but personal data is being collected without permission and the potential for misuse of this information is extreme.

    There are other ways of achieving the same effect without any of the issues that Plaxo has (e.g. an on-line database where people maintain their own contact details and provide a key, for use outside the database, to anyone they wish to have access to this information); ways that don’t have the issues Plaxo does.

    My recommendation:
    If you ever get a request to update your details on Plaxo: do so!
    Only, replace ALL your details with a request that the person concerned not post you details on Plaxo again.
    (This will confirm the validity of your e-mail address, but will overwrite any other details and send a message that you do not want to be on Plaxo. It will also reduce the spread of Palxo by requiring Plaxo users to maintain contact information away from Plaxo.)

  8. Yes, but what if you have several POP3 email addresses and you want to be anonymous on some of those addresses or your wife is representing herself on one of them and Plaxo uses the address book of Outlook to let everyone know the identity and contact info of the Plaxo member who owns the computer?