On one matter of payment system security-the SET protocol-American Express, MasterCard, and Visa are of one mind.

They made a show of unity about the Secure Electronic Transaction standard last week before a high-tech industry gathering, the Internet and Electronic Commerce Conference and Exposition in New York.

Steve Herz, senior vice president of Internet commerce at Visa International, said: "Merchants can use SET to broaden trust in the marketplace. The merchant can leverage the trust of a global payment system and make more sales."

For consumers, said Jim Degracia, vice president of electronic commerce for American Express, "SET provides many benefits," including "assured privacy of their messages.

"It really is appropriate to embrace the robustness of SET," Mr. Degracia said. It "provides authentication for both sides of the transaction."

"SET allows one way of doing business that satisfies everyone," said Alan Glass, senior vice president of electronic commerce at MasterCard International. "It is global and universal."

The men were clearly aware of the sniping about SET, both about its technical merits and slowness to market. Some critics say the current version, SET 1.0, is already outmoded and must quickly give way to a more sophisticated 2.0 level. Others say the effort could just as well be scrapped.

"Had they gotten this out last year, it would have been a great thing," said David Weisman, new media research analyst for Forrester Research Inc., Cambridge, Mass. "But their whole approach, from the technology to the marketing, has been bungled."

Supporters maintain that SET will eventually prevail because it replicates payment habits and relationships from the physical world, meets financial industry risk management requirements, and will otherwise prove superior to the most common current Net security method-a protocol called Secure Sockets Layer, or SSL.

Although consumers can feel comfortable that SET will keep their credit card numbers off the network, "the bottom line from the financial institution's position is that SET's infrastructure will allow the guaranteed payment."

Mr. Degracia contended that with a shift of liability toward merchants for fraudulent transactions, they will come to prefer SET over SSL transactions.

He said SET could get a boost by being applied to business-to-business transactions, which are expected to exceed consumer electronic commerce.

Mr. Herz pointed out that Visa and MasterCard do not have to worry about a key aspect of SET-issuing digital certificates for authentication of buyers and sellers, which is a card-issuer responsibility. American Express, as an issuer, is in a position to make a difference here.

"Expect to see a flurry of (certificate) activity in the next three to six months," Mr. Degracia said.

Mr. Herz said: "I anticipate it will accelerate over the coming months. You are not seeing financial institutions drive a massive rollout yet, but eventually you'll see them put communication muscle behind it."

"We tend to write rules on how products and services work, but not when," said Mr. Glass. But he added, "We're looking for ways to push, pull, and spiral to get cards activated."

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