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Seal Of Approval On Responsible Spam

Privacy group Trust-e wants to stick a digital seal of approval on commercial E-mail.

Privacy group Trust-e Thursday introduced the "Trusted Sender" program to help E-mail users keep spam out of their in-boxes.

Under the program, a privacy seal of approval is placed on E-mail messages from participating companies. To qualify for the seal, companies must meet Trust-e's E-mail best practices and principles, says Fran Maier, executive director of the nonprofit group. Those include the use of accurate subject lines, participation in Trust-e's dispute resolution process, and allowing users to opt-out of future mailings. Companies that have already agreed to support the program include Microsoft, DoubleClick, Topica, and Bigfoot Interactive.

Participating mailers install a piece of hardware inside their firewall, which signs each outgoing piece of E-mail with a unique "digital smart field," says Vince Schiavone, president and CEO of ePrivacy Group, which is providing the technology for the program. Users with HTML-capable browsers will see a seal in the top right corner of the E-mail message; others will see a link in the top line of the text. "When a user clicks on that, a secure transaction takes place to verify it's legitimate," says Schiavone. "It's like a cryptographic envelope." The system serves to confirm that the message really came from a trusted sender, and it can't be faked by unscrupulous spammers, he says.

Though the Trusted Sender program doesn't keep other, unsealed E-mails from clogging inboxes, Schiavone believes that's the next step. He's spoken to several software vendors and mail-filtering companies and expects future versions of E-mail clients to filter out non-approved messages. Maier believes that the program also will weed out uncooperative spammers through attrition. "Their efforts will get less and less successful," she says. "Hopefully that will lessen their persistence."

The Trust-e program is the latest shot in a growing war against spam E-mail. The Federal Trade Commission is preparing to launch "a systematic attack on fraudulent and deceptive spam," said J. Howard Beales, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, speaking at a privacy and security conference in Washington, D.C., this week. Beales said the bureau is examining possible cases for legal action.

Two weeks ago, the Direct Marketing Association, an industry trade group, approved new privacy guidelines for member companies, requiring them to allow consumers to opt-out of marketing E-mails and to choose whether they want their personal information shared.

All these efforts are welcomed by Christine Frye, chief privacy officer at Experian in Denver, which runs E-mail marketing campaigns for clients. Experian follows best-practices such as disclosing the sources of its mailing lists and providing consumers with opt-out options, she says. But disreputable spammers clog E-mail in-boxes and hurt the reputations of all E-marketers. Says Frye, "Any program that contributes to consumer trust and confidence is a positive program."

Do you think it'll do any good? Post your opinion in the (spam-free, we hope) ,a href="http://www.informationweek.com/forum/informationweek">Talk Shop discussion forum.

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