Online marketers propose privacy standards

Mindful of growing worries about Net privacy abuses, a coalition of Web advertising companies releases rules intended to control the proliferation of spam.

Mindful that growing worries about privacy on the Internet may stall the growth of the online marketing industry, a coalition of Web advertising companies today released privacy protection standards intended to control the proliferation of unwanted bulk email, known as spam.

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A new plan to curb spam
As previously reported, the Responsible Electronic Communications Alliance (RECA) comprises 16 online marketers including industry leaders DoubleClick, 24/7 Media and CMGI's Yesmail.com. The group has outlined some preliminary privacy enforcement standards for online marketing and communications.

The formation of RECA comes as online marketers and retailers have been buffeted by accusations of prying into consumers' surfing and buying habits, creating one public relations disaster after another for the nascent industry. Organizations such as Electronic Privacy Information Center and Junkbusters have fought for consumer rights, lobbying politicians and urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate companies that illegally sell that data.

In addition, spam has become one of the most controversial aspects of the Internet, as complaints increase from Internet service providers (ISPs), privacy advocates and consumers.

The Web marketing industry is hoping to set standards to regulate itself rather than being told by outside regulators what standards to adopt.

RECA said the proposals will give consumers control of their privacy, letting them decide whether to receive email marketing, giving them clear and understandable notice of what they are signing up for, and providing the ability to remove themselves from mailing lists.

Christopher Wolf, president of RECA, said the group is developing a "seal of approval" program. "Our ultimate goal is to phase in a set of firm standards on privacy, notice, access and choice," Wolf said in a statement.

The proposals include notification of all personal information collected from consumers, how the information will be used, and who will receive it. The proposal will also alert consumers of the use of hidden information-collecting tools such as cookies and GIFs.

The coalition suggests that marketing companies require their clients to give consumers a single opt-in choice for marketing material. The proposals also require that consumers be able to tap into their personal information and have a simple method to contest and correct inaccurate or incomplete details.

RECA member companies that violate the standards could face a range of penalties, including warnings, fines, forfeiture of the right to use RECA's seal, and expulsion.

The coalition agreed to provide "a meaningful, timely and inexpensive mechanism" for users to email complaints regarding practices.

While the proposals may be perceived as a good early step in tackling the privacy debate, one privacy advocate was skeptical about the value of the standards. Deborah Pierce, a lawyer for the advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation, found the proposal merely a slap on the wrist.

"The enforcement just doesn't seem so tough to me when you compare it with the personal information that has been collected from the user and how it may be used," Pierce said.

Wolf said RECA members will move quickly to discuss the coalition's proposals with others in the online community--outside analysts, privacy advocates and ISPs.

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