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Amazon Honor System puts its brand, reputation at risk

By Published on .

Icebox.com went bust this month. But when I paid a visit to the animation site last week to check out the scene of death, Icebox asked me for a donation to help subsidize the site. That's weird. And Icebox knew my identity even though I'd never visited when the thing was actually alive. That's annoying.

What's more annoying is that Icebox knew who I was courtesy of Amazon.com, which is now giving Web sites the opportunity to cash in by tapping into Amazon's database of more than 25 million customers.

The new Amazon Honor System, concocted by Amazon boss Jeff Bezos, lets visitors donate to an assortment of for-profit and non-profit Web sites. Amazon takes 15 cents plus 15% of each donation in return for processing the donation.

Amazon has created a big problem here: Privacy. Maybe I want to visit anonymously www.equipped.org, a "survival techniques Web site," to see what happened at the Shot Show. But right there on the home page is a "Hello Bradley" message asking me to donate money; with only a few more clicks, I could make the requested $5 donation to a site.

I never gave equipped.org my name. But the survival site-please don't call it a survivalist site-knows who I am because I registered my name and credit card at Amazon.

If you dig a bit, you discover various protections Amazon has put in place. You can change settings at Amazon.com by clicking on the option: "Don't greet me by name when I visit other sites."

With that option, equipped.org simply says "Hello" on its home page. But click on the Honor System link, and the donations page still says, "Hello, Bradley Johnson."

Amazon says it doesn't release information about me to sites that have signed up for Honor System. And Amazon swears it doesn't log my visits to Honor System sites; I may visit equipped.org, but Amazon won't recommend "How to Start Your Own Separatist Militia Group" when I visit the book site.

Amazon also reviews sites before letting them sign up. It won't let in sites that promote discrimination or illegal activities. There's nothing specific in the rules that would keep an Amazon competitor, such as a site for an Amazon-hating independent bookstore, from joining the Honor System (though Amazon gives itself "sole discretion" to decide who gets in). Amazon does exclude porn sites and those that trade on "amazon" or variations. Guess you can't donate to the cause of Amazonbabes.com.

Amazon took steps to protect the integrity of this program. But more important than that, Amazon made a serious misstep: removing the anonymity of my visits to other sites by associating my name and Visa number with those sites.

I don't hold it against revenue-starved Web sites when they ask for money, though I'm skeptical about how successful sites-particularly for-profit ventures-will be in getting visitors to cough up cash. (Icebox, asking for $1 contributions, at late-week had drawn 223 monetary donations. A few bucks were still trickling in last Thurday even though the site already had called it quits.)

I do, however, hold it against Amazon for hijacking my name and credit card number and for surprising me by handing my identity over to other sites. That's not acceptable.

I respect Amazon's continued efforts to innovate. I am comfortable with Amazon seeking ways to extend its payment processing prowess to other sites-if Ama-zon can make the case that an e-tailer has any business being in that business.

But in porting my name and Visa number to sites without my prompting, Amazon has gone too far. For 15 cents and a commission, Amazon is selling out its brand and putting its retailing name at risk.

For now, I've resorted to following a proven method for whacking back at parasitic Web marketers: I erased my computer's cookies to keep my Web surfing anonymous when I wish it be anonymous.

Note to Amazon and Mr. Bezos: Keep your hands out of the cookie jar.

Randall Rothenberg is on vacation. His column returns Feb. 26.

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