If you really wanted people to trust you, would you pay a service to monitor your actions and then certify that you do what you say you do? Hardly. Generally speaking, our society runs on the notion that we are trustworthy until proven guilty — of lies, bad checks or some other kind of fraud. Socialization and fear of a bad reputation keep us from telling too many white lies; the threat of fines and prison deters more serious breaches of trust.
“They seem to be mainly motivated to find the loopholes for TRUSTe partners,” says David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), who thinks that the government — the Federal Trade Commission, to be specific — is a more appropriate monitor for the Net. As for TRUSTe, says Sobel, “they’ve set themselves up between a rock and a hard place.” After all, how can an organization that relies on member fees act as an unbiased watchdog of those same businesses?
So, TRUSTe tried to spin the incident into some good press with an announcement that the organization will expand its program to include not just Web sites but also software — specifically software that collects and transmits personally identifiable information online.
“We are going to ask the same hard questions we’ve been asking RealNetworks, but to software companies: ‘What are you doing with this data and are you disclosing it?’” Steer said.
Perhaps instead of inventing new programs, however, TRUSTe should ask itself an even harder question: Will consumers continue to trust an organization that seems more interested in helping its members out of P.R. snafus than guaranteeing privacy protection?
Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.More Kaitlin Quistgaard.