Online Privacy Gets a Boost

According to Lewin, the goal of the new group is to implement an industrywide approach to educate the public about online privacy through advertising in newspapers, radio and on the Internet. Lewin said the companies have contributed a total of $500,000 to get the program off the ground.

The 12 companies that have teamed up with Truste have all professed a commitment to providing consumers with the information necessary to control their personal information online. Truste is currently locked in a battle with former online retailer Toysmart.com Inc. over the proposed sale of its customer data.

"The Truste Privacy Partnership works in tandem with the goal [of giving consumers control of their personal information online] by providing helpful Web surfing and online business hints, so that individuals are more empowered when they're on the Internet," said Richard Purcell, director of corporate privacy at Microsoft. "Microsoft is pleased to play an active role in the Privacy Partnership's multipronged approach to consumer education."

Truste's campaign comes amid a high-profile debate about whether the federal government should pass privacy legislation or continue allowing companies to regulate themselves.

And at least one privacy advocate is skeptical of Truste's motives.

"I couldn't see what was new in this [announcement]," said Jason Catlett, president of privacy advocate Junkbusters Corp. in Green Brook, N.J. "This is preposterous. They're saying this is a grassroots effort, but [what it really is] is corporate marble and brass. It's huge market corporations running a campaign to influence public opinion that [consumers'] online privacy will be taken care of [without the need for legally guaranteed rights]. Remember, Truste's founding principle is to stave off legislation. But in the privacy-rights movement, we are struggling to get Congress to give people legally guaranteed rights."

Catlett said, "Truste wants to tell consumers that their privacy rights will be taken care of if they only frequent Web sites with the Truste seal on it. That's nonsense."

Andrew Shen, policy analyst at the Electronic Privacy Information Centre in Washington, also said he didn't understand what was new in the announcement.

"I don't see what this will add to the privacy debate," he said. "This is more or less what Truste and others have done before -- trumped up education.

"But that's already in progress," he continued. "As the [Federal Trade Commission] said, what's missing is some laws and legal standards protecting users' privacy."

The other companies participating with Truste are: America Online, BrightStreet.com, Excite@Home, IBM, Lycos, Persona and RealNetworks.

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