CommercePulse -- earning trust

So far, a concerted industry effort to come up with standard policies for user privacy and data disclosure has found few takers among Web site owners.

Truste, jointly formed by Commerce.net and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a stab at having the industry design and self-regulate codes of conduct for Web data privacy and disclosure. The idea is to come up with common guidelines by which a site lets visitors know what personal information it is collecting from them -- either clandestinely via cookie or via fill-in forms -- and how that information might be used. Members that meet Truste's criteria get to display its seal on their sites.

Truste has 110 members, about a third of which actually sell products, executive director Susan Scott said. Current members include Lands' End, Excite, Netcom, The New York Times and Wired magazine. Disney, Geocities and ZDnet are in the process of being certified, Scott said, and Infoseek and Lycos are "good bets" to be certified soon.

Still, that's just a handful out of the vast Web galaxy that includes 500,000 to 1 million (depending on who's doing the counting) commercial sites.

If Web merchants refuse to join this attempt at self-regulation, the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Clinton administration will take this as a message that the government must step in, Scott said. Indeed, the FTC has been surveying some 1200 Web sites to determine how many owners are publishing privacy policy statements.

The report will be published this month. While numbers aren't available, industry scuttlebut has it that reviewers have found a miniscule percentage of sites with published privacy policy statements.

Meanwhile, users are making their dissatisfaction felt. Georgia Tech's 1997 survey, for example, found that more than 71 per cent of respondents wanted new laws to protect their online privacy.

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