Privacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia has dismissed TRUSTe's Privacy Partnership 2000 campaign for online privacy protection as a "complete waste of time".
The campaign, launched this week, is designed to "educate" consumers about online privacy.
However, EFA officials described the project as an attempt to self-regulate online privacy laws through a purported consumer privacy campaign.
US-based non-profit group TRUSTe, which lobbies for consumer trust in the internet, has attracted support from a power group of IT multinationals to co-market the "education" campaign.
The consortium, including IBM, Intel, AltaVista, Microsoft, America Online, Yahoo, Lycos, Excite@Home and local online auction site vendor uBid, a LibertyOne spin-off, has backed the multimedia campaign with a reported $US500,000.
The campaign will "brand" the TRUSTe Privacy Seal through a US advertising drive starting next month. "We now want to make sure consumers know what that privacy seal means and how they can use it to stay in control of their personal information," said Bob Lewin, CEO and executive director of TRUSTe.
TRUSTe claims the logo was rated by Nielsen/NetRatings as the "most visible symbol on the internet over the past year".
The executive director of EFA, Irene Graham, dismissed the logo as a "vague" symbol of authority, with little power to influence consumer trust as it was not legally binding. "TRUSTe has no teeth," she said.
"TRUSTe is going to have to show that its logo and the regulations (behind it) are binding. There's no force involved. All you do is stick a logo on your site and hope consumers think you're compliant," said Graham.
The only power TRUSTe exercised was the threat of taking a logo away from an organisation if it did not comply with TRUSTe's own set of privacy rules, she said. Essentially, its guidelines advise consumers to look for certain privacy "notifications and protections" while web surfing.
Graham viewed the campaign's membership base as an opportunistic group of marketers who would back any supposed "grassroots" cause to generate consumer loyalty by raising levels of trust in terms of perception of user privacy on a vendor's website.
"The privacy advocacy groups will slam it. They will say it's a waste of time and not to trust it," she said. "It's a self-regulatory move and a way of (defying) the government and telling industry that companies can make their own rules." IT vendors wanted "loose" regulations and to keep transferring user data within the industry "behind the scenes", Graham asserted.
Internet users were still in the wild in terms of online privacy protection, according to Graham. They would simply need to exercise some "caveat emptor", she said. "These days a fair percentage of consumers are pretty sceptical."In Graham's eyes, Australia could learn some lessons from European trends in regulating consumer privacy. The European Union (EU) was proposing to establish an EU Data Directive to ban companies from trading personal data on customers domestically and across borders without the customer's knowledge, according to Graham.