RealNetworks Says It's RealSorry

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Part of the beauty of subscribing to services that allow you to download music from the Internet is that no one can see you buying that copy of Barry Manilow outtakes. But it turns out that someone has been watching: Each time one of the 13.5 million subscribers to RealNetworks' RealJukebox downloads a song, the company creates a file that includes the user's musical preference, level of computer savvy and sophistication of computer equipment, as well as a catalog of CDs they've played on their ROM drive. That news set off alarm bells with web privacy advocates, who fear the data could be used to indict Net surfers who use pirated materials such as CDs (sometimes unwittingly). The reaction drew a quick response from RealNetworks, which announced Monday that it was releasing a free software download that would block the program's ability to collect personal infomration.

Despite the fuss, TIME Digital editor Joshua Quittner notes that the monitoring of computer habits can benefit users by customizing service to their tastes, such as e-mailing someone information on a recording artist they have previously downloaded. "The problem wasn't that they invaded people's privacy, but that they invaded people's privacy without their permission," says Quittner. "In the case of RealJukebox, it's a banal thing because it's music, but you can extrapolate a little bit and see how it's a problem as we move forward with other types of information. Say it's a health care web site, and now they're compiling all sorts of information about your health." Note to HMOs: You didn't hear that last part.