To bolster public confidence in on-line commerce, two associations have joined forces to establish the Internet equivalent of the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
The groups, CommerceNet and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, have given their effort a name - ETrust - and have created three logos to signify different levels of privacy offered by the Web pages on which they are conferred.
Companies that abide by certain privacy and security standards - agreeing, for instance, not to make customer information available to other companies - can license the Etrust logos and post them on their Web sites.
Currently in a pilot phase, ETrust is intended to boost electronic commerce by giving consumers, banks, and other companies reason to trust vendors selling goods on-line.
Several banks, including Wells Fargo & Co., have expressed interest in sponsoring the effort. Two auditing firms, Coopers & Lybrand and KPMG Peat Marwick, will conduct periodic checks to assure compliance with ETrust standards.
Consumers just coming on-line "need some very easy way to identify trust with the various Web sites and the merchants," said Asim Abdullah, executive director of CommerceNet. "Having a logo system like this could be a very powerful means to accomplish that."
The group organized around this effort is a mix of nonprofits and Internet-oriented commercial ventures.
Together they hope to rally not only the business community but also foreign and domestic government agencies around their cause, so the trust marks can gain international recognition.
ETrust participants said Vice President Gore has privately endorsed it and soon will go public expressing support.
One trust mark - "No Exchange" - means the site operator does not gather or record any information about the visitor, other than what is necessary for billing and system administration.
A second mark - "1-to-1 Exchange" - means the operator does not disclose information about site visitors to third parties.
The third mark - "Third-Party Exchange Guidelines" - indicates the operator may share visitors' personal or transactional data with third parties, but only if the operator discloses the information gathered, what it is being used for, and who is receiving it.
"What we're doing is creating a way to identify quickly on-line what kind of privacy practices are used," said Lori Fena, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit champion of electronic civil liberties.
"Informed consent is the name of the game here. It's a way of giving consumers a choice," Ms. Fena said.
Certified ETrust site operators would have to adhere to certain cryptographic guidelines, and would need to own an accredited digital certificate.
From time to time, the projects' accountants plan to visit the companies and view their Web sites to confirm that policies are being upheld, project members said.
The project has its own Web site - www.etrust.org - where it is showcasing models of the proposed logos. About 100 on-line merchants have volunteered to test the marks on their Web sites in the next month, and plans call for a general launch in early 1997.
Meanwhile, the coalition will conduct focus groups with consumers to see if the trust marks do indeed calm security and privacy fears.
"We want to make sure that the Internet winds up growing in a healthy fashion, with consumers trusting it as a medium," said Tim Dick, president of World Pages, an on-line telephone directory service. "If we don't collectively instill trust in consumers, then the medium will not continue to grow."
Mr. Dick, who is on the steering committee of ETrust, said he previously led an effort called Privacy Assured, in which companies pledged to adhere to certain on-line privacy conditions. In his own company's case, that meant, among other things, forbidding users from conducting "reverse" telephone directory searches, locating people's names by their telephone number or address.
The ETrust team is trying to form a partnership with the Better Business Bureau, which already sponsors a Web site certification service, BBB on- line.
"Our belief is if we can consolidate all these types of trust marks into a common system, it will end up benefiting the user more," Mr. Abdullah said.
"As opposed to going to a Web site and seeing 25 different stickers, what you want to do is identify one sort of brand for trust, and then perhaps have value-add rings around it that focus on certain specifics."
A ring might be specific to a certain industry or a certain type of security, he said, or it could denote whether or not the site is appropriate for children.
Mr. Abdullah said the ETrust pilot will help project leaders determine what the logos should look like, how they should be disseminated, and how much businesses should have to pay to acquire them.
Gigi Wang, executive director of ETrust and a staff member at CommerceNet, said the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has shown support for ETrust and has asked representatives to participate in a January forum, which will address whether government intervention is needed to ensure on-line privacy and security.
"They're trying to determine whether there can be self-regulation instead of government regulation," said Ms. Wang.
The ETrust consortium is also trying to gain approval from government and industry groups in Europe, Japan, and Singapore.
For the moment, public misgivings about commercial dealings in cyberspace persist.
Ms. Fena of the Electronic Frontier Foundation illustrates this point with a story about informal surveys she conducts when giving talks about on-line commerce.
First, she asks how many listeners leave Web sites immediately upon being asked to register personal information. About 50% of people raise their hands, she said.
She asks the rest if, when they register, they type in false information or information that could let them track what the site operator does with it.
"Everybody else raises their hand," she said.