Travel Sites Ease Privacy Rules on Personal Data

By Evan Schuman  |  Posted 07-26-2005
When it comes to privacy issues, the online airline/travel industry is moving in the opposite direction from most industries and is using personal data more aggressively than it did just a few months ago, according to a new report from an industry consulting firm.

Excluding privacy, the travel industry is doing quite well in terms of customer service and responsiveness, and that's mostly because it's feeling the competitive pressure from travel Web sites such as Travelocity, Orbitz and Expedia, said Terry Golesworthy, president of The Customer Respect Group.

In turn, those Web travel sites have been doing well because of a lack of Web-friendliness that initially had been shown by the airlines and hotels, as well as the fact that travel agents—unlike several years ago—now charge consumers directly, as opposed to solely taking a cut from the airline and hotel fees they book.

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But while those airline and hotel sites are doing better in most areas, they are getting worse when it comes to promising to protect site-visitor privacy, Golesworthy said.

When his company analyzed major travel sites' privacy policies in February, 62 percent pledged to not share data at all or to do so only on an opt-in basis. In the new July analysis, only 54 percent of the travel sites made such pledges.

"In pretty much every industry, it's going in the opposite direction" and is becoming more consumer-friendly on privacy issues, Golesworthy said.

In the July figures, 7 percent promise to share the data only with others in their company, 19 percent will share it only with key business partners (an airline sharing data with a hotel or a car-rental business, for example), and 15 percent say they share with anyone they feel like.

The Customer Respect Group didn't test whether the travel sites abided by their own policies, but merely examined what they pledged to site visitors.

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Many of those policies have recently changed and have become more vague and less restrictive in terms of what the site can do with the personal information. Golesworthy said he sees that as a result of more corporate legal departments getting involved.

"The largest companies are controlled by groups of lawyers, and they starting from a perspective of being very legal," he said. Some of the privacy policy phrases he warned consumers to be wary of included "we'll use our best commercial judgment in not using it," and that the sites will "use their best endeavors."

"What does 'best endeavors' mean? These are various, vague, almost-legal terms that allow them to point to the fact that they don't guarantee it, when they don't want to guarantee anything," Golesworthy said. "It's creating some wiggle room for themselves."

The airline and travel sites are also going against industry trends in the opt-in versus opt-out debate. That debate asks whether it's better to have an assumption that consumers should give up their personal data—and a checkmark is needed if they want to keep it private—as opposed to the opposite.

Golesworthy is seeing most industries—under the recent pressure of a lot of negative privacy publicity—assuming that customers' info is private and requiring a checkmark to make it public, while the airline and hotel industry is going in the opposite direction.

Of the sites examined, Golesworthy's group found that 7 percent offered no means for users to opt out of marketing, 27 percent allowed users to opt in to marketing, 64 percent forced users to manually opt out online, and 2 percent allowed users to opt out only by contacting someone offline.

At the same time as their privacy restrictions have gotten more lax, these travel sites are becoming more open and have spelled out their policies more extensively. Ironically, this has hurt some of their scores, Golesworthy said.

"Their transparency goes up and their privacy scores go down," he said. "Even if we don't like their policies, we still reward them for being honest about it."

Evan Schuman can be reached at Evan_Schuman@ziffdavis.com.

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