BBBOnline Adds Name to Online Privacy-Seal Programs

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BBBOnLine, a subsidiary of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, began accepting applications last week for an electronic privacy-approval program it will launch next year for companies that do business on the Internet.


Electronic privacy seals of approval have been endorsed by industry trade groups as a way to quell consumer fears over the collection and use of personal information for marketing purposes online and to show the White House and legislators that industry self-regulation can work to protect consumer privacy. Theoretically, sites would have to adhere to privacy guidelines set by the organization named on the seal displayed on the site.


Currently, there are two other Internet privacy-seal program managers: nonprofit TRUSTe (www.truste.org) and the highly specialized American Institute of Certified Public Accountants Online (www.aicpa.org).


While BBBOnLine and TRUSTe concede that their programs will compete with one another, they say there will be enough demand for electronic privacy seals online to support both.


"We feel there's plenty to go around, and we welcome them to the arena," said Anne Jennings, marketing communications manager at TRUSTe, Palo Alto, CA.


BBBOnLine decided to launch its privacy-seal program after several companies -- including some involved in founding TRUSTe -- expressed concern over TRUSTe's lack of brand recognition among consumers, said Russell Bodoff, senior vice president and chief operating officer at BBBOnLine, Washington.


"The concern was that the only organization that could truly pull off an effective self-regulation program ... would be our organization," he said. "I think a lot of the feeling was that the [TRUSTe] name did not have consumer recognition and it wasn't going to catch on to the degree that was needed."


TRUSTe officials, however, said their seal is more recognizable as a pure online privacy brand and while a BBB subsidiary may have more clout with offline companies, TRUSTe will find its niche in Internet-based firms.


"They had an 84-year head start," said Susan Scott, executive director at TRUSTe. "In the two years that we've been in business, we've exhibited tremendous movement and acceptance. I think our market is going to be the Web-centric companies."


TRUSTe claims just more than 400 members.


Industry trade groups aren't specifically endorsing either organization.


"All these initiatives are good for consumers and are a positive step forward," said Andy Sernovitz, president of the Association for Interactive Media, the recently acquired Internet arm of the Direct Marketing Association. "Any one of them is as good as any other, and we endorse them all."


The newly formed Internet Direct Marketing Bureau is staying neutral.


"The IDMB is currently evaluating the privacy policies of several entities, including the possibility of writing our own," said J. Balmer, steering committee member of the IDMB and CEO of Internet firm I.D.E.A. Inc., Bloomington, IL. "We will announce at a major meeting during the first quarter of next year what our official policy is."


The Online Privacy Alliance also wouldn't endorse either group, saying its framework for self-enforcement calls upon companies to post privacy policies, abide by them and join a credible third-party enforcement mechanism. Founded in the spring in a feverish attempt to show government regulators that industry self-regulation can work, the OPA in July proposed relying on electronic seals of approval for enforcement of information collection and use policies.


BBBOnLine said it will launch its online privacy seal program in the first quarter of 1999. More information on the program, along with a countdown-to-launch ticker, is available at www.bbbonline.org.
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