Etsy.com publishes real names and purchase history of buyers

Last week, crafting marketplace Etsy.com published the real name and purchasing history of their buyers to the Web. These purchases include sex toys, gay literature, drug pipes and other presumably private transactions.

Or in the words of an online poster at the Penny Arcade forums discussing the privacy breech: “Found an XXL glass dildo with veins and swirled gold coloring (beautiful piece really) and checked to see if anyone favorited it. Someone did. She also favorited some cosplay cat ear hats and a bell collar/necklace thing. Then I found her on Facebook.”

No notification has been given to members of this change in policy beyond an Etsy help forum thread announcing, “We’re starting to roll out a new People Search. Let us know what you think!” Etsy sellers did — unhappily — for 120 pages of comments, until an Etsy moderator closed the thread.

Because Etsy.com has high credibility with search engines, searching for a person’s name frequently shows the Etsy purchase history in the first page of results for less-common names. In my case, an Etsy profile created by a single purchase at the site in 2009 was, at press time, the 5th result on a Google search for my last name.

In reverse, an Etsy.com visitor can search for a sex toy shop, and follow that store’s recent purchases to a list of shoppers complete in some cases with real name, location and photo. No login is required for either search. Etsy has also published users’ “favorites”, which had appeared to users to be a way of privately tagging items.

The changes are retroactive to all prior Etsy users. My 2009 purchase — my only activity on the site — popped up in a Google Alert for my name. I’ve since closed my account.

Forum posters at Etsy and Penny Arcade have noted this seems to put Etsy at odds with tougher UK and Canadian privacy laws, as well as EU rules. Etsy has not commented on this. In rolling out previous features, an Etsy moderator noted “Etsy’s privacy practices are regularly verified and vetted by TRUSTe, an independent, non-profit organization which helps make sure Etsy is in compliance with privacy laws around the world.” The TRUSTe press office did not return an email asking if the current practices met their certification.

Etsy management has gone silent, other than to note that real names and purchase history can be removed on a settings panel. However, since Etsy isn’t notifying buyers, it’s not clear how anyone would know to do this. Forum posters report a delay of several days before a name change is reflected on the site. “My name request change is taking forever, what is with that? Even after the name change (if/when it happens), I’m cursed with cached Google searches.” writes Etsy user littlesistahstudio.

Etsy has not officially acknowledged that privacy is a problem with “People Search”. Etsy demoted a thread discussing privacy concerns to the less visible “Ideas” section of the user forum.

Why did this happen? Why publish buyer profiles in what the Etsy forums show to be a crafty community of sellers with an ecommerce site bolted on? Here’s a thought: social network companies are valued by the number of members. Since buyers might outnumber sellers by 100 to one, under current bubble logic, that puts Etsy at 100x in market value if their previous buyers are included — by default and secretly, if need be — in a public “social commerce” experience.

UPDATE

After many days of silence Etsy announced that past purchases would be hidden by removing item descriptions from user feedback. The change of policy came within hours of the following exchange I had with the 30-year-old Etsy CEO Rob Kalin.

 

From the Ars Technica comment section:

Rob Kalin wrote:
It’s not like there’s a canonical list of all my purchases somewhere.- Rob

Yes, there is. It’s the seller feedback. Sellers always give feedback in the hopes that you reciprocate. When you make that list and include a link to the item description, that is the list of all your purchases. Here’s yours:

Vintage Industrial Cooper’s Table
Gull-Wing Bench with drawer
Make My Wishes Come True – Clipboard
Uncomplicated – a simple modern box clock
Unfurled with Green Interior

I can go on but your purchases are boring. Sex shops, less so. Gay bookstores? Hmm. Drug items? Getting more damaging…

Simple fix: hide the items. Keep the feedback. Also, quit defending something indefensible. You exposed my purchases without my knowledge or consent.

The policy change I suggested — removing item descriptions from feedback — was implemented a few hours later. “We want to apologize… As of right now, all your purchases on Etsy are private,” wrote Kalin in a post entitled “Rethinking Feedback”. Sellers are understandably upset this incomplete fix leaves real names exposed by default while damaging the utility of the feedback system.

There remains plenty of damaging information visible to the Web, like this list of people, complete with usernames that can be matched to email addresses and the occasional real name.

Full credit to the Penny Arcade forums for noticing, investigating, understanding and exposing this privacy violation.

 

Jonathan Eyler-Werve’s privacy policy will never give you up. The author is the VP of Technology at Moxie Jean

Category: Frontpage, Jonathan  |  Tags:

Comments

28 Responses to “Etsy.com publishes real names and purchase history of buyers”
  1. Rikushix says:

    Good article! Thanks.

  2. Jonathan says:

    I’ve sent the following questions to the TRUSTe press office:

    Did TRUSTe review the “People Search” tools launched by Etsy.com last week, which publish buyers real names and purchase history to the Web?

    When was the last review of etsy.com policy by TRUSTe?

    Does TRUSTe believe that the current policy, which exposed real names and purchase history retroactively and did not notify users of the change, is compliant with the TRUSTe certification?

    I’ll update the story if/when they respond.

    • Michael says:

      I consider TRUSTe to be like a warning label more than any assurance of good policies. All TRUSTe requires is that they adhere to their own terms of service, not to any fair data practices.

  3. blueditty says:

    I don’t think that Etsy is acknowledging the number of accounts that are simply abandoned seller shops, or one time buyers who have no intention of returning because the search function is so inept. Accounts don’t equal real activity.
    Instead of courting the customers they already have, i.e. active buyers and sellers, they’ve decided to arrogantly disallow any input from those current users and alienate them wholesale, while going after faintly foreseeable social networkers.

    • Jacqueline says:

      to Jonathan: “a month ago to buyers with a current email address on file.” < You need to have an email on file to join etsy, if you changed your email and didn't inform Etsy, then it's not their fault. If you changed your email and didn't update it, or left your etsy account and email but didn't disactivate them, it's not etsy's fault at all. Also, if you ever put your real name on the internet, it will be available to google, google is a SEARCH ENGINE. That's kind of Rule # 1 on the internet. And the email did address those things….
      When I type my name into this site, I understand that it is on the internet and will probably show up in a google search, without them having to warn me about that.

    • Sadie says:

      I have a current email address and buy from Etsy on a decently regular basis but I never received any email about this. Not even on the private Etsy message function.

  4. mclovebuddy says:

    there’s an opt out option that was mass emailed to all account holders also stating how to make their setting private. i read that people were annoyed with that and also some were annoyed by the new circle notifications that people were following them.

    i believe they just made the announcement that they’re moving toward private feedback and not linked back. that should take care of some of the privacy concern and also take care of the potential problem of content aggregators or scrapers – not sure when it will be implemented.

    http://www.etsy.com/teams/7716/announcements/discuss/6818578/

    • Jonathan says:

      Respectfully, I disagree. The notification that privacy policy was changing was sent a month ago to buyers with a current email address on file. But it did not mention the key problem: that real name and buyer history would be visible to search engines like Google. It is very hard to argue based on that privacy policy change message (which I never got, as one data point) qualifies as informed consent of those outcomes. You can see it in the User forums. Even now, lots of people blunder into the privacy threads with no idea that this stuff can be found on a Google search.

      I’m glad they’re making changes. But it’s a little late. Etsy users posted 120 pages of complaints, and nothing. One story on Ars Technica, and the policy changes in an hour. Damage control. Not impressive.

    • Lee says:

      First, no there was NOT any mass mail about an opt-out option. My current e-mail address IS on file with Etsy, and this is the first I’ve heard about this.

      Second, OPT-OUT IS WRONG, period. It’s bad practice and bad security. People’s privacy settings should NEVER change without warning! Facebook screws this up on a regular basis, and now Etsy is imitating their bad example.

    • Etsy has since clarified that the notice of the privacy change went only to users who had opted-in for promotional messages from Etsy. This leaves a lot of people out.

  5. hdg1 says:

    They sent an e-mail to all account holders in January, 2011, yes. But that e-mail contained only a notification of the Circles feature and notice that using that feature would allow your friends to see your favorites. There’s a big difference between friends seeing your favorites and the entire internet being able to easily find past purchases and personal information. This is a revolting oversight on their part, and I’m very disappointed in their (lack of) response.

    Also, as a user, I don’t think it’s “sad” that it’s “hard to find people you know on Etsy.” It’s a store, not a cocktail party.

    • Jacqueline says:

      the email did address those things, it said people would be able to see your NAME so that they could do a SEARCH to find their friends on etsy. Also, ebay has always had it so people can see what you buy.

    • Rikushix says:

      Jacqueline: You are wrong.

      This is the ENTIRETY of the email I received January 29th: There is no mention of publishing profile information, nor instructions on how to opt-out if you so desire, nor an absolute date on when they’re doing this.

      Hello!

      We recently launched a new feature, Circles, that lets you connect with other people on Etsy. When you add someone to your Etsy circle, you can follow along with their favorites in your activity feed. It’s illuminating!

      Right now it’s hard to find people you know on Etsy, and that’s sad. Well, we’re changing that. We’re making it easy to connect your email address book to Etsy, so we can find people you know who are also members.

      (If you don’t want people you know to be able to find you, you will be able easily to opt out through your account privacy settings.)

      We’re letting you know about this in advance, and will be launching this feature in mid-February.

      We have also revised our Privacy Policy in anticipation of this feature. You can review our Privacy Policy here: http://www.etsy.com/policy/privacy

      If you have any questions or comments, please visit http://www.etsy.com/contact to get in touch.

      You’re receiving this email because you registered on Etsy.com with this email address.

      Thanks!
      The Etsy Team

      This is a service-related message from Etsy.com. Etsy’s headquarters are located at 55 Washington Street, Suite 512, Brooklyn, NY, USA, 11201.

  6. Anthony says:

    Wow, this seems like a horrible idea. What were they thinking. My purchase history only consists of shaving soaps, but I doubt anyone who purchased personal items ever thought this would happen.

  7. Bonnie says:

    Jacqueline, Ebay doesn’t use YOUR REAL NAME or YOUR EMAIL ADDRESS.

  8. funnyone says:

    Thank you for explaining your own experience since Etsy purposely hides or obfuscates information/details it reveals to members (member = sellers and buyers) and rarely sends blast-emails to its members outlining, clearly, privacy changes to the site. The original Etsy announcement of new People Search merely stated that, in ancipation of asking for new personal data, Etsy was, in the same breath, CHANGING their privacy policy to accomodate that change as well as any new uses of this new personal info. It cannot be considered “notification” because it did not state clearly that (1) new private info was being collected, saved and used and (2) that the privacy policy changes gives Etsy carte blanche to use this personal info in any way they choose.
    The recent leak of archived member info proves the long-known fact that Etsy failed to implement accepted privacy policies, have neglected to inform their members before making changes, and have claimed ownership of this personal info do use in whichever way they deem necessary to implement all their new “connections” tools and therefore increase their Google page ranking. It’s all tied to increasing the visibility of the company without regard to member privacy.
    It’s also proof there there is a distinct and definite anti-seller, anti-consumer sentiment at Etsy, which has never admitted publicly that they have misused member information.
    For all of this continual damage to their member-sellers, Etsy continues to charge a listing fee and sales commission, yet provides none of the standard protections in exchange for those fees.
    If a seller and their business name is damaged by Etsy’s reckless behavior, that bad reputation follows that seller/business OFF Etsy, so the damage is much larger to affected sellers.
    The only solution based on a history like Etsy’s is to close one’s account, buyer or seller, and never return to the site.
    This is no a one-off occurence; Etsy is well known for it’s complete disregard for sellers and their business integrity.
    Etsy is also well known for refusing to respond to any and all member complaints. They are known for censorship on their own discussion boards, and are also known to retaliate with unfair business practices that often cause substantial damage to sellers that follow them to their other online locations.

  9. Rikushix says:

    And as Bonnie said, you can’t search Ebay by users real names. Christ, what planet are you from?

  10. Adam Brown says:

    Hi, Adam Brown from Etsy here.

    Just wanted to let you know that we have resolved this. As of right now, all your purchases and feedback on Etsy are now automatically set to private.

    You can read more about it in our blog: http://www.etsy.com/storque/handmade-life/rethinking-feedback-12472/

    • Thanks for commenting.

      Looks like “Favorites” are still public by default. As noted in the story above, there’s plenty of ways that will out someone as gay, for instance. even if they haven’t used the favorites feature or even logged in since you started making changes. Might want to nudge that over to a default setting of Private, don’t you think?

  11. Watching the Wheels says:

    Has anyone noted that both Facebook and Etsy have been financed by Accel/Jim Breyer? maybe it’s Breyer who can better answer these questions.

  12. andrew michael says:

    There is yet another privacy related issue emerging today (3.21.11). You can find the discussion here:
    http://www.etsy.com/teams/7718/site-help/discuss/6826133/page/1

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