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The Magestic Splendor of Online Advertising! or some damn thing like that.

Q&A: Bob Lewin, executive director of TRUSTe
by Ryan Monceaux, Editor In Chief

There are not too many hot-button issues on the Web that are more controversial than consumer privacy. As we order everything from books to CDs to SPAM t-shirts (the luncheon meat, not the email) online, our personal lives are becoming less and less personal and more out in the open for everyone to see. Many groups are fighting for consumer privacy rights, and the leader in that field is TRUSTe. TRUSTe's mission of building user confidence in the Internet through fair information practices has put it as one of the most trusted symbols on the Web.

In an exclusive, Bob Lewin, executive director of TRUSTe, sits down for a chat regarding privacy and the Internet. TRUSTe's top man says that profiling could ruin the consumer trust that advertisers are trying so hard to gain.

AdBanter: Let's talk about profiling and how it's changed Online Advertising. What the major changes that have come about that you've seen since you took over at TRUSTe?

Historically, those of us that have come up from the marketing side of things always felt that information was there to be had. The interpretation of the information was part of marketing but actually the gathering of information was something that just happened. It's kind of like air or water. It's just a natural element.

I think with the growth of online businesses and so forth, people are realizing, as individuals, maybe they don't want their information collected as it has historically been collected. So what that has done has made the whole area of profiling a much more sensitive area in terms of the actual collection of the information in the first place than was ever the case during previous years. People don't think it's a bad idea, collecting information that would expose them to ads that are more pertinent to them, but you've got to give them the option of deciding for themselves. I think that's the fundamental change.

AdBanter: Why is that? What has changed in the course of time where people are more sensitive about their personal information being out there?

It's actually a couple of things. First off, there have been several well-publicized cases that have heightened the awareness of people. Situations have developed or they go on with bad press and people have seen that. The media has done a great job of making the public aware of what goes on with privacy issues.

Two, many people are alike. When I ordered my first book through the Internet and then I got to that part about credit cards, I was much more sensitive when I couldn't see the people at the other end of the transaction. And you're not one hundred percent sure, no matter how familiar you are with the technology, about where that information is going. It's a combination of the two things - your personal information and not knowing where it goes and the media coverage about what has happened to other people - that has caused some of the fears of people.

AdBanter: What is TRUSTe doing to combat those fears?

First thing, we've got to continue to educate consumers about what the TRUSTe mark means. What does it mean when we say disclosure and access to the information and reasonable security and what is our watchdog process and how does it work? Once consumers know what this all means, they will hopefully feel a bit more secure about their personal information being given out to these sites.

And then they'll know about the business practices of these Web sites and then they'll know there's some consistency between what they say and their business practices. We want to increase the level of comfortableness that the consumer has that their privacy statements are indeed the facts.

AdBanter: What is the most important thing you can tell marketers when they're dealing with this demographic data?

The message we are trying to send is clear: handle with care. If (profiling) is not done intelligently, it can become a time-bomb. They can become the target of a politician who wants another term in office. They will work with the media to let it be known that that here's a firm that is taking some of the most personal information that you and I have as consumers with plans to use it that are unbeknown to us.

If marketing people don't understand that, and they don't take steps to guard against that from happening, it's such a politically sensitive issue that they'll find themselves under regulations that may cause and force them to (become more consumer friendly) which will probably be a little bit more expensive and a little bit more rigorous.

AdBanter: What is the future of TRUSTe? Are you going into email privacy? Where do you go from here?

As an outgrowth of the recent Real Network situation, where the problem was the collection of information off the software server, we've decided to go in that area: to software. Our program, as it is defined today, does not cover that particular area; we're just covering information as it relates to the Web site. This is an opportunity to expand the program and to take the success we have enjoyed with the Web collection of data and expanding it to the software area.

So we announced our intentions of developing a pilot-software privacy program where we take the principles we have used and apply them to the arena of software privacy. We are in the process of outlining exactly what that program will be; we've received a great deal of interest in this and we hope to make an announcement in the next month or two. We plan to implement the pilot program this quarter.

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