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Trustmark Schemes Struggle to Protect Privacy - September 2008

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Galexia has published an article examining the effectiveness of privacy trustmarks in protecting consumers’ rights.

July 2008 was a landmark month in the history of privacy trustmarks - the seals that appear on some websites to provide a level of assurance about privacy protection. The largest and most successful trustmark - TRUSTe with over 2000 members - changed its status from ‘non-profit’ to ‘for profit’. And the second largest trustmark - BBB Online Privacy with over 700 members - closed its doors for good, abandoning a scheme that it had run for over eight years.

The basic premise of privacy trustmarks is that end users are supposed to have confidence in web sites displaying the trustmark seal, as it presumably indicates that the site adheres to good privacy standards. In practice, although trustmark seals all appear similar, the level of privacy protection varies a great deal. Some seals are backed by detailed standards and independent audits. Other seals are provided with no requirements or checks (other than payment). Some seals include a free dispute resolution service for complaints, other seals have no complaints mechanism or charge consumers for lodging complaints.

This article examines both legitimate and non-legitimate privacy trustmarks, and finds that there are serious consumer issues for both categories. Trustmarks have struggled to provide even basic privacy protection to date, and with the demise of BBB Online Privacy and the change in status of TRUSTe, it is difficult to be optimistic about the future.

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