December 26, 2000, 9:55 AM

Yet another dot-com trade group wants self-regulation

As web shopping grows, the Feds are sizing up the need for rules to protect consumers’ rights online. But a Washington-based trade group would like to beat them to the punch by tightening voluntary fraud and privacy guidelines for e-retailers. The Electronic Retailing Association in July proposed strengthening enforcement of its 2-year-old guidelines for members.

The group’s board is considering a proposal that separates “clear and egregious” abuse from “potential or minor” abuse and sets out protocols for dealing with each. Proposed sanctions include expediting reported violations to the Federal Trade Commission and Council of Better Business Bureaus and expelling big offenders who don’t take corrective action.

Internet speed makes e-retailing a fast-moving target for meaningful regulation. Elissa Meyer, president and CEO, contends that rules made by federal agencies operating alone may miss the mark. “Rather than the federal government laboring to develop rules that are reasonable but don’t fit the model that’s rapidly evolving, let’s work together to solve the problem,” she says.

Fair enough. But the Internet retailing industry doesn’t speak as one, and this isn’t its strongest voice. AOL has adopted ERA’s guidelines on online marketing for its merchants, but the association’s membership of 470 draws from vendors and direct marketers using all electronic media, of which branded Internet merchants are a minor factor.

Meanwhile, retail’s largest trade association, the National Retail Federation, in June upped its Internet focus by acquiring web retailing trade group Shop.org. That may give them the largest concentration of e-retailers, but with perhaps two dozen groups representing various segments of the industry, consensus is a long way off.

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