Privacy Seal Administrators Vie for Business Support

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The Council of Better Business Bureaus, Arlington, VA, officially entered the privacy seal fray this month with its own branded program, BBBOnLine (www.bbb-online.org)


The new seal program's launch was rolled out just days after Georgetown University, as part of its Internet Privacy Policy Survey, began its sweep of 250 randomly selected Web sites to determine the incidence and nature of posted policies for 7,500 consumer-oriented online companies. The same week, the American Advertising Federation released its first privacy guidelines program for small advertising agencies and communications businesses to get them to comply.


Meanwhile, Novell Corp. announced last week its intention to roll out an e-commerce protection program known as "Digital Me." The company said the new technology will give Web users more control over their online identities through a personal "digital safety deposit box."


For the foreseeable future, it looks as if three major players will define how self-regulated privacy policy and compliance will be managed.


In the case of BBBOnLine, the organization can leverage its well-known Better Business Bureau name, something it im-mediately began doing to distinguish itself from the current leading seal program, TRUSTe (www.truste.org) and the lesser known but more rigorous seal and transaction security program, WebTrust (www.aic-pa.org).


BBBOnLine will operate as an independent subsidiary of its parent organization in coordination with local Better Business Bureaus to help provide Internet privacy information and create privacy policies for businesses nationwide. It is currently processing some 300 applications.


TRUSTe offers a service similar to BBBOnline, but with important distinctions that could eventually orient it more exclusively to global big business monitoring. Mainly, TRUSTe has highly accredited technological roots and organizational intimacy with Silicon Valley. It boasts more than 500 existing licensees including many corporate household names, such as America Online, IBM, Microsoft and Netscape.


Spokeswoman, Anne Jennings, says the TRUSTe organization has a comprehensive surveillance system designed to insure that policy violations are not occurring among companies bearing its seal.


"We visit Web sites regularly and seed them, registering under an assumed identity," she said. "We do this several times a year and we use the information to validate that our policies are being met."


Jennings said each company is on its own seeding schedule, and that different businesses have different account names increasing the likelihood of catching problems. TRUSTe also makes seeding distinctions between domain names for multiple subsidiaries of the same parent company further insuring its level of accuracy, said Jennings.


At WebTrust, the specialized seal and security verification initiative launched by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, a much more comprehensive and rigorous nuts to bolts model is being used, though it is not near as widely known.


WebTrust not only monitors compliance of a company's business practices and


policies through audits every 90 days, the organization provides sophisticated transaction security in association with VeriSign, a certificate authority using digital encryption.


The organization's program is more costly, but its relationship with 330,000 members in the financial accounting world combined with stringent auditing and a strategic alliance with VeriSign may ultimately win it a phenomenal amount of respect and attention from customers.


Despite the differences from competitors, the long-awaited launch of BBBOnline, was applauded by American business leaders, most of whom see the organization's emergence as an important stalwart against government regulation.


Moreover, the prospect of having the imprimatur of the Better Business Bureau pasted around the Web has made technology leaders rest easier as the Commerce Department hammers out its policy with overseas leaders on the European privacy directive.


However, Jason Catlett, president/CEO at Junkbusters Inc., Green Brook, NJ, an


online privacy advocate, says the number of companies BBBOnline has so far signed on is fairly small. He also questions how well consumers understand seal programs as well as what messages businesses are going to be leaving with customers when they see different, or multiple seals on the same Web site.
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