December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

A little sting behind the seal

Don’t mess with TRUSTe. That’s the message the online privacy watchdog wants to send to Web sites that inappropriately display its Trustmark privacy seal.

Facing criticism that its enforcement of privacy guidelines lacks teeth, TRUSTe recently fired off a cease-and-desist letter to vitamin and supplement seller MotherNature.com, which continued to display the familiar seal well into March-despite the fact that its license expired in January.

TRUSTe also posted this notice on its Web site: “Despite repeated efforts to contact staff within the company, TRUSTe has not received the commitment from MotherNature.com to be readily available for completion of the renewal process in a reasonable time.” Within days, MotherNature removed the seal and replaced it with the logo of the competing Better Business Bureau reliability program.

Eric Schmitt, analyst at Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass., says it’s time TRUSTe laid down the law with wayward sites, especially in light of the recent privacy flap involving the ad-serving network DoubleClick. Privacy advocates blasted DoubleClick’s now-scuttled plans to create profiles marrying online browsing patterns with consumer data collected by its offline direct-marketing arm. Though the controversy did not involve TRUSTe affiliates directly, the incident intensified pressure on TRUSTe and other privacy police to close gaps in their enforcement guidelines. TRUSTe, for example, launched a pilot program last fall covering consumer information gathered via software programs.

“This shows TRUSTe is willing to take action,” says Schmitt of the MotherNature incident. Still, TRUSTe must tread carefully with its members, he acknowledges. “If it moves too quickly to reprimand, it will alienate some.”

Among MotherNature customers, the skirmish probably caused little consternation, says Brian Tretick, senior manager of e-commerce at Ernst & Young. “Companies will come and go with these programs,” he adds, “although we encourage our clients to be part of a self-regulatory program.”

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