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Source: InternetWorld.com

Posted on February 21, 2001

      Auction site eBay recently sent many of its members a form e-mail that said, in effect, "We were wrong to assume that you wouldn't want to receive marketing e-mails from us, so we have reset your preferences. We encourage you to come back to our site and tell us 'no' if you really mean 'no'.'" The company accounted for the oversight as a "technical glitch."

      The tactic sent eBay users into a tizzy, and the story eventually found its way into most news outlets, including the New York Times.

      That a company like eBay-one of the most formidable members of the industry and a company known far and wide for technological excellence-could mistake the word "no" for "yes" on its Web site for six straight months is certainly possible. Remember, some of the world's greatest scientists and engineers recently teamed up to set the Mars Climate Orbiter on a collision course with the red planet because they forgot to settle on a proper unit of measure-English or metric-for comparing data. Extremely intelligent people are capable of buffoonery from time to time, just like the rest of us.

      And what if this wasn't an oversight? Well, that a company with as much market share as eBay would decide to disregard the will of customers and do as it pleased should not surprise anyone. What does warrant attention is that eBay came to this decision in concert with TRUSTe, a so-called privacy advocate that sells quality assurance seals and advice on privacy policies to hundreds of Web sites.

      So, how could any privacy advocate look over this proposed change and give it a clean bill of health? They couldn't, and they'd have to be quite gullible to believe that this was nothing more than a company repairing a glitch. If TRUSTe has the courage to challenge its clients, it has rarely-if ever-shown it, and we doubt that it will do so in the future.

      Here readers might ask, "But what about TRUSTe's role in stopping the Toysmart data sale last year?" TRUSTe did a good deed that time, alerting the FTC about Toysmart's ad in the Wall Street Journal. But TRUSTe had nothing to lose: Toysmart was bankrupt, an easy target that wouldn't be paying a licensing fee anytime soon. Let's see TRUSTe stare down one of its big clients-one with more than $75 million in annual revenue, $7,000 of which goes to TRUSTe-and say, "If you do this, we're revoking our seal, and you can keep your money."

      If your company contributes to the TRUSTe fund, do reconsider. We've yet to see any evidence that consumers are more willing to buy from a TRUSTe site than any other, and it's reasonable to speculate that this seal company will fall by the wayside in a few years or so, after organizations like the Better Business Bureau bulk up their seal programs.

      And if you still believe TRUSTe can help ease the concerns of your customers, ask yourself how many times consumers will put up with weak responses like the one TRUSTe had to the eBay blunder: "Now that you mention it, this does seem like a potential privacy problem." That's not advocacy, it's covering your butt, which is what TRUSTe does best.

      E-CommerceALERT comment: The only objective third party assurance seal is WebTrust. Visit PrivacyDetective.com for information about the WebTrust Privacy Seal.

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