"AddThis" To Your List of Online Privacy Concerns

All it takes to “share” a favorite website with your friends or “bookmark” an article to save and post on Facebook is a simple click. In fact, the “AddThis” feature on everything from magazine to social networking sites has become so commonplace that even the savviest of Internet consumers may not realize the information they give away each time they click that button.

But now the convenient feature is very much in the spotlight thanks to a federal lawsuit claiming the company behind AddThis, Clearspring Technologies, broke the law by using the widget to gather information on users, including children. The suit was filed in the central district of California by attorneys for a group of minors and their parents.

Washington, D.C.-based Clearspring pioneered the social bookmarking market when it acquired”AddThis” in 2008. Since then, the feature has grown to the point where it now reaches 169.4 million unique visitors, or about 95% of all U.S. Internet users, according to comScore Inc.

The lawsuit claims that major Web sites owned by the likes of Disney, Warner Bros. Records and Demand Media, are using Clearspring’s “Flash-based cookies” to track personal information about users, including their movements across the Internet, not just on the web sites owned by the site operators.

Clearspring contends AddThis does not use Flash cookie technology for tracking users. The company says the claims in the suit are “factually inaccurate,” and that, “Clearspring does not and never did collect, store, or sell Personally Identifiable Information.”

The lawsuit brings into focus once again the dilemma of privacy versus convenience Internet users face every time they surf the Web. The Wall Street Journal last month released a multi-part investigation on “The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets.”

In the investigation, the Journal found that, “One of the fastest-growing businesses on the Internet is the business of spying on Internet users.” Specifically, they concluded that, “the nation’s top 50 websites on average installed 64 pieces of tracking technology onto the computers of visitors, usually with no warning.”

Clearspring told the Journal it “doesn’t collect information about consumers on all the sites that feature its button, and websites can opt out of the advertising data collection.” The company has, however, begun aggregating data about the sharing habits of Web users to sell to marketers to create targeted online ads.

Beyond that, Clearspring also aggregates the Web-sharing data to place users into groups based on preferences, say movie fans or shoppers, and which social media sites they most likely will share the information on, like Facebook or Twitter, according to the Journal.

The group suing Clearspring also cited in its claims an academic report from the University of California at Berkeley that found Web users savvy enough to clear their browser cookies still lost control of their personal information because the Flash player restores them, allowing Clearspring to “harvest…consumers’ personal information for online marketing activities.” The study found that “top 100 websites are using Flash cookies to ‘respawn,’ or recreate deleted HTTP cookies.”

In promoting AddThis, Clearspring advertises it will, “maximize the distribution of your content and traffic brought to your site” and by offering personalization tools to “make it easy to off the right sharing services to the right user at the right time,” and “help you understand your audience and how they’re interacting with your content.”

The group suing Clearspring in federal court alleges the data the company gathered on users includes video-viewing choices, gender, age, race, number of children, education level, geographic information and household income.

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