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Opting out is hard to do - it takes a letter

Acxiom is one of the world's most sophisticated companies. Its massive computers keep track of more than 10 billion pieces of information, most of it marketing data designed to keep track of you. The firm claims it "engages" 375 million consumers around the world every month.

But the company is entirely old fashioned when it comes to letting consumers opt out of its huge database of personal information. To do so, they must visit the firm's Web site and fill out a Web form. Acxiom will then mail a paper “opt-out form,” which consumers must then fill out and mail back.

"It's ridiculous to think that in this era these companies require a letter for this," says Pam Dixon, director of the World Privacy Forum, which sent a formal letter of complaint (PDF) to the Federal Trade Commission this week. "If you ask any consumer why a Web site would ask for a letter, they would say the paper opt out is there because the company is trying to discourage (consumers) from doing it."

Acxiom did not immediately respond to requests for an interview.

Arkansas-based Acxiom isn't the only company in the organization's cross-hairs. The World Privacy Forum, a California-based, nonprofit advocacy group, also named online data brokers US Search, USA People Search and PublicRecordsNow in its complaint.

"In an age of Twitter and Web 2.0, requiring people to mail in their opt outs imposes a burden for consumers that is simply not necessary," Dixon said.

At US Search, consumers are presented with a Web form, but they are told to fill it out, print it out, and then mail it to the company.

"Please note that if you do not follow these instructions exactly, we will not be able to honor your opt-out request," the site says. "Enter your information in the fields below. You should include every address where you’ve lived or received mail over the past 10 years."

Stefanie Rubin, spokeswoman for US Search, said many of the Privacy’s Forum’s claims were “incorrect.”

“For example, the US Search opt-out process does offer a means to expedite opt-out requests for peace officers, and stalking and ID theft victims,” she wrote in an e-mail to msnbc.com. “Moreover, the report does not adequately appreciate the challenges around authenticating opt-out requests in an online environment. We hope to begin a dialogue with the World Privacy Forum on these issues in the near future.”

At ChoicePoint, opting out is easier

Not all companies require a paper trail. Georgia-based Data broker ChoicePoint allows customers to opt out via a simple Web form. So does the Direct Marketing Association.

"If ChoicePoint can do it, these other companies can do it," Dixon said.

In the complaint letter to the FTC, the privacy organization argued that the commission has established a standard for Web site opt-outs and that requiring paper letters doesn't meet it.

It bases that claim on standards the FTC published in 2007 concerning consumers who try to opt out of databases that fall under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transaction Act.

In its Affiliate Marketing rule, the FTC stated that “reasonable and simple methods for exercising an opt-out right do not include:

• Requiring the consumer to write his or her own letter;

• Requiring the consumer to call or write to obtain a form for opting out, rather than including the form with the opt-out notice;

• Requiring the consumer who receives the opt-out notice in electronic form only, such as through posting at an Internet Web site, to opt out solely by paper mail or by visiting a different Web site without providing a link to that site.

The rule is designed for data brokers that sell credit reports, such as ChoicePoint or credit reporting agency Trans Union, and may not cover other kinds of data brokers that don’t sell reports used to make credit-related decisions. The privacy group is asking the FTC to issue a statement that would explicitly declare that the rule applies to any data broker, and to declare mail-in opt-out requirements "unfair and unlawful."

Claudia Bourne-Farrell, an FTC spokeswoman, said the agency had received the letter it was “taking their concerns under advisement.”

There are important reasons that consumers might want to remove information from such databases, Dixon said. Victims of stalking and law enforcement officials have a need to keep their personal information away from antagonists, for example. In its letter, the Privacy Forum cites consumer complaints it obtained from the FTC under the Freedom of Information Act to make this point.

“I am a detective for the (removed) police department, and as you can probably guess I don’t want the criminals that I have put away having such easy access to my personal information,” wrote one.

A victim of stalking wrote to the asking for “immediate help" expunging the public databases.

Dixon said her group discovered the burdensome letter-writing process while preparing a popular new feature for the agency's Web site, a "Top 10 Opt Out" page. The list includes recipes for removing information from telemarketing lists, junk mail lists, financial firm information sharing and others.