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TRUSTe to Step Up Monitoring

Non-profit privacy group TRUSTe -- best known for its "trustmark" seal program -- will buckle down on monitoring the practices of participants in its seal program through a deal with Mailshell.com.

By working with Santa Clara, Calif.-based Mailshell, which attempts to block spam using filters and an e-mail escrow service, TRUSTe will monitor the adherence of its seal licensees to their posted privacy policies regarding commercial e-mail.

San Jose, Calif.-based TRUSTe normally monitors its seal program participants' adherence to their privacy policies by anonymously "seeding" the e-mail marketing lists of its licensees -- enabling it to track whether a participant sends out spam or otherwise violates its stated privacy policies.

But now, TRUSTe will use Mailshell's services to streamline the seeding process, which the companies say will make it easier to secretly monitor licensees' e-mail marketing, list rental, and unsubscription compliance practices. TRUSTe will seed its licensee lists with anonymous e-mail identities from Mailshell's service, effectively enabling the group to monitor each list's activity without detection.

Mailshell's technology also uses a database of e-mail senders to create a sort of "Caller ID" for commercial e-mail. Even when an e-mail's sender is unclear, Mailshell purports to be able to trace it to its source, and to filter out unsolicited mail. That functionality should enable TRUSTe to calculate the frequency of each licensee's mailing, maintain an automated archive of all e-mails sent by each licensee, and monitor compliance with unsubscribe requests.

"Giving out your e-mail address can be risky," said Mailshell chief executive Tonny Yu. "Anyone who has your e-mail address can e-mail you anything that they want at any time and for any reason. You forfeit some of your privacy when you give out your e-mail address to sign-up, opt-in, register, subscribe, personalize or buy."

"Our system will now enable TRUSTe to understand more about the source and content of each e-mail than ever before," Yu added. "Mailshell's Caller ID for e-mail manages, monitors and hierarchically sorts and delivers e-mail, ensuring greater privacy and control for e-mail recipients, allowing them to permanently cancel any undesired e-mail relationship at any time."

It's important news because nearly 2,000 e-tailers and Web marketers have licensed the TRUSTe "trustmark" seal, which with the Better Business Bureau and Verisign, is one of the few online certification marks for business practices, and one of the most recognized. Still, TRUSTe has come under fire from some for being weak in its policing of the licensees.

Joining the program involves paying a fee and submitting to TRUSTe's guidelines, which are modeled after the so-called "fair information practices" approved by the U.S. Department of Commerce, Federal Trade Commission, and various online advertising industry organizations and associations.

According to the TRUSTe agreement, participating Web sites must disclose: the information they gather about users; how that information will be used; with whom that information will be shared; choices available to users regarding how their information is used; and how to update or correct inaccuracies in the information.

All Web sites that display the seal also must agree to comply with TRUSTe oversight and complaint resolution procedures, which includes e-mail list "seeding."

"When it comes to commercial e-mail, consumers should feel assured that when a Web site posts the TRUSTe seal, it will keep to the policies articulated in its privacy statement," said TRUSTe president and chief executive Bob Lewin.