Group raises alarm over false seal of approval

Online privacy group Truste is seeking at least $1 million in damages from a political journal that allegedly displays the program's "seal of approval" without having received approval.

3 min read
Creators of a well-known online privacy program are seeking at least $1 million in damages from a political journal that allegedly displays the program's "seal of approval" without having received approval.

Truste filed its trademark infringement lawsuit Wednesday afternoon in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., asking for a judgment barring American-Politics.com from using the familiar green-and-black seal.

"This Web site is trying to capitalize on the hard-earned reputation of the program and the sites that join it," said Dave Steer, spokesman for Truste.

Also named as defendants in the case were Underwriters Digital Research; Jeff Koopersmith, the administrative contact for American-Politics.com; Gaudette I.T.A.; and the American Politics Journal Publications. None could immediately be reached for comment.

Truste discovered the problem through a technology that scours the Web, keeping track of where the group's mark appears online. On the American-Politics.com site, the seal is posted on a page where the site's $3 bumper stickers are sold.

It also pops up again when surfers participate in a poll sponsored by SurfAssured, an Internet access provider that offers special privacy protections online. The company is owned by Underwriters Digital Research, based in Delaware.

"By illegally displaying the Truste privacy seal without authorization, the defendants named in the suit are not only causing damage to Truste, but also are causing irreparable damage to the entire online industry and the state of trust on the Internet," Steer wrote in an email.

Privacy on the Net has become the rallying cry of consumers, advocates and lawmakers who fear that personal data such as home addresses, financial information and shopping habits culled online can end up in the wrong hands.

Seal programs such as Truste came about as a way to help quell consumer fears over privacy online. Web sites display the mark to assure Web surfers that their personal information will not be mishandled.

Truste, based in San Jose, Calif., was among one of the first organizations to provide such a service when it came online in 1997. Since then, Truste has licensed nearly 2,000 of its privacy seals.

Still, "seals of approval" have been criticized by watchdogs who say such programs don't have the power to regulate marketers or dot-coms that violate privacy policies. The worst that can happen if a violation has occurred, experts say, is a company will lose its license to display the mark.

"So far I'm not impressed with Truste," said Matt Curtin of Interhack, a Columbus, Ohio, security consulting firm. "It doesn't have any bite, though it does have some bark."

In August, Curtin found that Truste tracked surfers visiting its Web site with technology not mentioned in its privacy policy. The tracking code was removed as soon as it was brought to the attention of Truste executives who said they were unaware of the problem.

Curtin had also alerted the public that four popular retail sites including Toysrus.com and Babiesrus.com displayed the Truste seal though they were secretly giving names and addresses of its customers to an Internet marketing firm.

Steer counters Curtin's assessment of seal programs. "I think this legal action is proof positive that a third-party oversight can make a difference," he said.

"We are filing a major-league lawsuit against a company that is hoodwinking everybody on the Net. If people want to howl at the moon that seals don't work, we'll let them. In the meantime, we're going to fix the problems."