Etsy publishes real names and purchase history of buyers

Jonathan Eyler-Werve

March 14, 2011

Last week, crafting marketplace Etsy 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. [Update: Etsy also sent an email to users who opted in to Etsy marketing messages.]

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 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 users 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.

 

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