The partnership between Truste and Hi-Ethics, a coalition of 18 major health sites, comes as Congress is considering finalizing the regulations for privacy and handling of health data under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act.
"The health Internet has come with one major challenge--the challenge of trust," Donald Kemper, chairman of Hi-Ethics and chief executive of member Healthwise, said Tuesday. "Can I, as a consumer, trust that my information is private...and that the information I get is unbiased?"
Hi-Ethics formed a year ago and released 14 ethical principles last May, by which its members regulate their use of data online. The founding member companies include America Online, Healtheon/WebMD, Drkoop.com, Medscape and Adam.com.
Truste, in consultation with Hi-Ethics, will devise the program by which the health companies will be audited and held accountable for their actions online. In addition, the organization will help design and administer a new seal, the E-Health Seal, that member companies can display on their sites.
For Truste, the move signifies an expansion beyond the mere certification and seal program for privacy that the organization has administered to date.
"We are moving beyond privacy by casting a wider net for consumer protection online," said Truste chief executive Bob Lewin.
Truste certifies the privacy policies of nearly 2,000 Web sites worldwide under its privacy seal program. Despite its quest for a pro-consumer image, however, the seal program has come under criticism for not being harsh enough on offenders.
Andrew Shen, policy analyst with the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington, D.C., questioned whether the new E-Health Seal will actually protect consumers or just lead to more confusion about what information sites collect.
"I think it is a lot of the same old conditions: too many seals, too many conflicting standards for consumers to deal with it all," he said. "An Internet privacy law would better create standards for the consumer.
"You really want a standard, or expectation, that consumers' information will be treated with the same level of privacy no matter where they go."