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Better Business Bureau joins online privacy fray

March 19, 1999
Web posted at: 7:29 p.m. EST (0029 GMT)

by Kathleen Ohlson

(IDG) -- The Better Business Bureau today became the latest organization to unveil an Internet privacy program, rolling out a plan that offers businesses a seal of approval if they follow bureau guidelines.

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BBBOnLine, a subsidiary of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, said its Online Privacy Seal Program helps inform consumers how Web sites handle their personal information, according to a statement. The organization joins other industry efforts, such as TRUSTe, in encouraging companies to disclose their privacy procedures.

Online privacy has become a hot topic for companies, government agencies and watchdog groups for the past year. The Internet industry has been under scrutiny after a government survey last year revealed that relatively few sites were posting privacy policies. Last week, an industry-backed Georgetown University Internet Privacy Policy Survey aimed to see if companies improved their showing.

Results are expected to be released next month.

BBBOnLine's program will award seals to businesses that tell visitors there is a privacy policy on-site, disclose how the policy works and notify people if their information will be shared with third parties, said Russell Bodoff, BBBOnLine's senior vice president and chief operating officer.

The program "is so comprehensive, it gives companies a road map," Bodoff said. The privacy emblem is a blue, black and white combination lock with a stylized globe, the Arlington, Va., organization said.

The privacy program will offer a distinct seal for sites with advertising for children; annually assess companies' online privacy practices; and take action against companies that don't comply, such as withdrawing the seal and referring the matter to government agencies, BBBOnLine said. A consumer can file a complaint against a company whether or not it belongs to the privacy program, and BBBOnLine will publicize the decision, Bodoff said. There is also an independent appeal process, he added.

More than 300 companies have applied to become members of the program, BBBOnLine said. Dell Computer Corp. is the first company to be approved, and other companies will follow in the next two weeks, Bodoff said.

Companies that support the privacy program include American Online Inc., AMR Corp., AT&T Corp., Bank of America, Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Intel Corp., Microsoft Corp., Nickelodeon and Xerox Corp.

Although BBBOnLine is aiming to encourage companies to be forthright about their privacy policies, the outcome "remains to be seen," according to one industry watcher.

What they're doing is "misleading," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. A Web site may have a privacy policy, but it "doesn't mean the site has good practices," Sobel said. These programs have to prove that they're "an adequate substitute over real legal protection," he said.

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How to protect your PC consumer rights in '99
December 31, 1998
Attention, Internet shoppers: Seals of approval may mislead you
August 11, 1998

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Georgetown University Internet Privacy Policy Survey

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