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Truste asked to probe Microsoft

Privacy advocate Junkbusters wants to find out whether Microsoft violates privacy agreements when it collects information on users when they register Windows 98.

Truste, an industry-backed privacy program, has been asked to investigate one of its biggest members, Microsoft, in a test of Internet companies' self-regulating efforts on privacy.

A complaint lodged by Junkbusters has asked Truste to investigate whether Microsoft's admitted practice of collecting information on users' PCs when they register Windows 98 violates Microsoft's license with Truste. Microsoft also has acknowledged that documents created with its Office 97 applications include information on their authors.

"I initiated the process to put it through its paces, so we could examine it," said Junkbusters' President Jason Catlett, a privacy activist.

The complaint comes at a critical moment for Internet privacy policy. Today U.S. and European Union negotiators are discussing a way for U.S. companies to get around the strict privacy provisions of the European Union.

Rules that were slated to go into effect last October could limit how much data on European citizens can be sent to the U.S. unless privacy safeguards are made as strong as Europe's. But the rules haven't taken effect yet, and negotiators are seeking a compromise. The U.S. is proposing a "safe harbor" provision that would let private efforts, not just legislation, to regulate privacy meet the European requirement.

Truste spokeswoman Anne Jennings said her group has until Friday to determine if Microsoft has violated the Truste guidelines and its licensing agreement.

"We can't comment on an ongoing investigation," she said. She acknowledged, however, that one thing Truste needs to determine is whether its guidelines, which apply specifically to Web sites, will cover any of Microsoft's recent privacy snafus.

The complaint against Microsoft puts Truste in a delicate spot. Microsoft pays $5,000 a year for its license to use the Truste logo and has donated $100,000 to the group. In addition, Microsoft executive Saul Klein sits on Truste's board. Klein, whose previous company, Firefly Network, was acquired last year by Microsoft, helped draft the initial Truste guidelines two years ago.

Klein downplayed the Junkbusters complaint to Truste, describing it as one of about 375 that Truste has looked into. He said about 20 percent of the complaints result in additional action, which can include a privacy audit by PriceWaterhousecoopers or KPMG. Truste said that no Web site's license has been revoked to date.

Microsoft says it has responded to customer complaints on the privacy issue but put the Junkbusters letter in the broader political context of whether industry self-regulation or laws are required to protect Internet privacy.

"It would be an interesting thing to be aware of the larger debate going on here," Klein said. "This isn't really an issue of Microsoft and Truste."