2008-01-25 / Columnists

Notes On Consumer Affairs

Commentary By Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer

AUDREY PHEFFER AUDREY PHEFFER The amount of information available on the Internet is mind-boggling. A recent estimate put the number of web pages on the Internet at over twenty-nine billion. Apopular website with which you may be familiar, Wikipedia, claims that it now offers approximately nine million articles in 252 languages, comprising a total of over 1.41 billion words. These numbers are impressive, but as with any technology, inevitably, there are drawbacks. Many consumers are concerned that the widespread availability and accessibility of information made possible by the Internet has, in some instances, eroded our privacy. I recently learned about a new feature offered on Google. com that allows users to gain access to residential phonebook listings paired with mapping software that can pinpoint the residential address associated with a listing. Fortunately, Google allows consumers to opt-out of this database.

If you would like to see what, if any, information is listed under your residential telephone number, enter your number with area code into Google's search engine. If your number is listed, you will see an entry near the top of the search results page entitled "Phonebook results." You may see the residential address associated with the phone number and a "Map" link listed here as well. Clicking on the "Map" link opens Google's street mapping application and displays a detailed map pinpointing the address listed.

If you would like to request to have your listing removed, click on the "Phonebook results" link. This will open another webpage containing the phonebook listing(s) for your number and a link to the removal request form. Follow the instructions provided to complete the removal.

You may be wondering about the legality of this service. Since Google obtains listing information from public records, this service is legal. Furthermore, since Google is not a consumer reporting agency or a financial or medical institution, it is not covered by federal privacy laws. Concerned consumers should also be aware that there are other websites offering residential phonebook listings paired with mapping applications, including White pag es.com, Switchboard.com and Phonenumber. com. Each of these sites offers consumers the ability to remove their listings. In addition to opting out of these sites, you may want to consider contacting your telephone service provider to request an unlisted or unpublished phone number. This helps to prevent online data vendors from obtaining your phone number.

For more information about limiting the dissemination of your personal information and steps that can be taken to keep such information from appearing on the Internet, consider visiting the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse website at: http://www.privacyrights. org/. You may also want to visit the Federal Trade Commission's "On Guard Online" website at: http:// onguardonline.gov/ for more tips about protecting your privacy online.

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