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BBB Online takes flak for Equifax approval

The Better Business Bureau's certification of the credit-rating firm as privacy-friendly diminishes its credibility, say privacy watchdogs.

BBB Online--which positions itself as an arbiter of online privacy--has come under fire for giving its seal of approval to credit-rating firm Equifax, which privacy advocates say has a history of violating federal laws.

The blast came as BBB Online chief operating officer Russell Bodoff testified today before Congress on Internet privacy, reporting that BBB Online has certified 14 Web sites so far and has more than 240 others in the approval pipeline.

Equifax has collected credit information on 300 million people and provides credit ratings for companies that want to check whether potential customers are creditworthy.

"Privacy advocates were astonished at the Better Business Bureau's decision last week to award a 'privacy seal' to Equifax, a company with one of the worst records on privacy in the country," representatives of Junkbusters, Privacy International, and Privacy Journal wrote BBB Online in a letter released today.

The Equifax controversy and the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing are the latest rounds in a spirited ongoing public debate on how best to guard online privacy. Industry groups and the Clinton Administration push self-regulation programs like BBB Online and Truste, a similar logo program.

But privacy advocates argue that self-regulation won't work, calling for legislation to keep data about an individual private in an online environment. That position resonates in Europe, where data protection laws are common. The difference between U.S. and European Union approaches has spawned continued negotiations between the two governments over privacy protections.

The privacy groups' letter cited a 1995 Federal Trade Commission report for its claim that Equifax has a long history of privacy violations.

"In 1995, the FTC reached an agreement with Equifax in an enforcement action accusing the company of systematically violating the Fair Credit Reporting Act of 1974," the letter states. That pact required Equifax to take a number of steps to guard privacy and the accuracy of credit reports.

BBB Online's Bodoff noted that points cited in the privacy advocates' letter referred to events and practices before 1995.

"BBB Online is a certification program for ongoing online practices, and we have done a review of current [Equifax] practices," Bodoff told CNET "If they have examples of current practices, we would be happy to review them."

Equifax defended its privacy policies both as they are now and as they have been in the recent past.

"Equifax is proud of its record as a pioneer in fair information practices and privacy concerns for more than a decade, offline and online," spokesman Dave Mooney said in an email message.

"Equifax's online privacy policies and practices have been reviewed thoroughly by BBB Online and found to meet their criteria, which we have supported from the outset of the organization. We are proud to display the BBB Online Privacy Seal on our Web site."

Junkbusters president Jason Catlett drew parallels to another privacy flap last month involving a similar privacy logo program from business-oriented Truste.

"Microsoft and Truste have shown that Truste's privacy seal program was systemically flawed," Catlett said, referring to Truste's clearing Microsoft because its admitted privacy breaches did not involve Microsoft Web sites, the only thing covered by Truste's logo program.

"BBB Online has demonstrated the same flaw by awarding the Equifax the seal," Catlett added.

BBB Online's program, which launched in March after nearly a year in the works, also is limited to Web sites or other Internet activity.

"The BBB Online seal does not reflect the past practices or policies of any particular seal participant, or practices pertaining to information collected other than online," Bodoff write in reply to the privacy advocates' letter.

Equifax said last week that it will sell credit reports via the Net to consumers who want to check on their credit status. It's also working on an electronic system so online retailers can check credit ratings of Internet customers immediately.

Earlier Equifax was named as partner for Net auction giant eBay to verify the identity of buyers and sellers. It's also working with eBay and clothing retailer Lands End to issue digital certificates to consumers for use on those sites.

Earlier this month, Equifax announced that it was the first major information services firm (and the tenth company overall) to receive the BBB Online seal for posting its online privacy policy.