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MS, TRUSTe ad campaign says trust them on privacy

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Having used the cookie issue to establish last week that it was a 'responsive and leading' company when it comes to security, Microsoft has followed up swiftly, joining its friends in the TRUSTe "Privacy Partnership" to launch a multimedia consumer privacy education campaign.

TRUSTme and Microsoft are of course former co-finalists in the Junkbusters e-commerce privacy awards, having collected a joint wooden spoon for failing to commission an audit following the exposure of Microsoft's GUID (Globally Unique Identifier) activities, and for announcing that the audit of Hotmail gave Microsoft a clean bill of health, while not disclosing the name of the auditor.

TRUSTe's membership includes most of the usual suspects when it comes to privacy: besides Microsoft, AOL, IBM, Intel, Yahoo and RealNetworks are all on board. The Privacy Partnership 2000 is described as a "grassroots education campaign" designed to "educate and empower online consumers by showing them the resources available to them for controlling their personal information online."

Right. But what are these resources? Well, TRUSTme doesn't quite seem to answer that one directly. The campaign will focus on three things: "branding the TRUSTe Privacy Seal" (ie. convincing users that it means something), "guiding consumers on what privacy notifications and protections to look for while on the Web" (getting them to agree with the guidelines that suit TRUSTe's vested-interest members) and "driving traffic to TRUSTe's consumer education Web pages."

The cynical might perhaps view this as an exercise in brainwashing, rather than one in empowerment. The radio version of the commercial will give people tips on how to safeguard their privacy, but the only suggestions supplied by TRUSTe so far are that listeners will be advised "to always look for and read Web site privacy statements," to avoid Web sites that don't post them prominently, and to "look for the TRUSTe Privacy Seal of approval." So more TRUSTme, and whatever you do, don't TRUST them.

According to TRUSTe, the seal guarantees that a Web site will disclose the personal information being gathered about you, how that information will be used, who it's shared with, what safeguards are in place, and how you can correct inaccuracies. Several of the member companies, you may recall, have in the past found themselves disclosing the personal information being gathered about you after they'd been caught, but that's Web business.

After being nice about Microsoft's cookie moves last week, Jason Catlett of Junkbusters is back in full cry: "Grassroots? An absurd claim. This is corporate marble and brass," he told The Register "Consumer education campaigns, as they are called in the US, are generally cynical attempts to convince Americans that the fault lies in themselves and not in their lack of legal rights, which the 'educators' have lobbied hard to prevent them getting."

So there, Cartels R TRUST. Jason also enthusiastically pointed us in the direction of his verdict on Lori Fena, chairman of TRUSTe and author of The Hundredth Window. In the latest TRUSTe announcement, Fena says: "By empowering customers to control their personal information, we make the Web a more trusted place to do business."

In his book review, Catlett describes The Hundredth Window as "a clumsy attempt to push the privacy debate in America back a few years... Three decades of history and law and information technology in the US and other countries is simply ignored... this book is what Silicon Valley's marketing departments would like American consumers to believe... Other guidelines range from meaningless to useless... The advance publicity for the book reads as if it were written by a corporate lobbyist trying to stop legally guaranteed privacy rights."

So you liked it, Jason? Is this privacy stuff fun or what? ®

Related Link

Junkbuster book review
(Sorry for puffing Junkbusters again, but there's lots of entertaining reading there)

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