e-consumer protection lobbyist slams TRUSTe online privacy crusade

Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) has dismissed TRUSTe's Privacy Partnership 2000 campaign for online privacy protection as a "complete waste of time," and an attempt to self-regulate online privacy laws through a purported consumer privacy campaign.

US-based non-profit group, TRUSTe, which lobbies for consumer trust in the Internet, has attracted support from a power-group of IT multinationals to co-market the "education" campaign.

The consortium including IBM, Intel, AltaVista, Microsoft, AmericaOnline, Yahoo, Lycos and Excite@Home and local online auction site vendor uBid, a LibertyOne spin-off, has backed the multimedia campaign with a reported $US500,000.

The campaign will "brand" the TRUSTe Privacy Seal through a US advertising drive starting in August. "We now want to make sure consumers know what that privacy seal means and how they can use it to stay in control of their personal information," said Bob Lewin, CEO and executive director of TRUSTe.

TRUSTe claims the logo was rated by Neilson/Netratings as the "most visible symbol on the Internet" over the past year.

Executive director of EFA, Irene Graham, dismissed logos as "vague" symbol of authority, with little power to influence consumer trust as they were not legally-binding. "TRUSTe has no teeth," she said.

"TRUSTe is going to have to show their logo and regulations (under it) are binding. There's no force involved. All you do is stick a logo on your site and hope consumers think you're compliant," said Graham.

The only power TRUSTe exercised was the threat of taking a logo away from an organisation if they did not comply with TRUSTe's own set of privacy rules, she said. Essentially, its guidelines advise consumers to look for certain privacy "notifications and protections" while Web-surfing.

Graham viewed the campaign's membership base as an opportunistic group of marketers who would back any supposed "grassroots" cause to generate consumer loyalty, and raise levels of public trust in terms of perception of user privacy on a vendor's website.

"The privacy advocacy groups will slam it. They will say it's a waste of time and ‘don't trust it,'" she said. "It's a self-regulatory move and a way of (defying) the government and telling industry that companies can make their own rules."

IT vendors wanted "loose" regulations and to keep transferring user data within the industry "behind the scenes," Graham asserted.

Internet users were still in the wild in terms of online privacy protection, according to Graham. They would simply need to exercise some "caveat emptor," she said. However she added: "These days a fair percentage of consumers are pretty skeptical."

In Graham's eyes, Australia could learn some lessons from European trends in regulating consumer privacy. The European Union (EU) was proposing to establish an EU Data Directive to ban companies from trading personal data on customers domestically and across borders without the customer's knowledge, according to Graham.

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