- The Washington Times - Monday, August 28, 2000

BBBOnline, the Internet arm of the Better Business Bureau system, has become a leader on the issue of self-regulation on the Internet.

The 4-year-old independent subsidiary has already developed two programs BBBOnline Reliability and BBBOnline Privacy that have laid the foundation for business standards on the Internet. Each program has its own trust mark a seal displayed on a company's Web site that ensures consumers the company is complying with BBBOnline guidelines.

Now the team at BBBOnline, led by Chief Operating Officer Russell T. Bodoff, is fine-tuning those rules with a new code of on-line business practices set to be approved next month that raises the standards even higher.

Question: What is the difference between the BBBOnline Reliability program and the BBBOnline Privacy program.

Answer: The first program was our Reliability program launched in May 1997. The reason it was our first program is because it closely models what Better Business Bureaus have always done help people find reliable companies that have committed to business standards.

The Reliability program requires a company to make a commitment to a series of standards. Right now, they are making a commitment to truthful and accurate advertising, committing to resolving any dispute that might come up if there is a problem with a product or service that's purchased on line and they commit to a third-party arbitration program.

Currently we have just about 6,000 businesses participating. That covers about 7,500 Web sites. So it is the largest trust-mark program on the Internet right now. It is closely tied to the efforts of local Better Business Bureaus.

In January of 1998 we had a group of companies come to us Hewlett-Packard, IBM, AT&T; and others and urged us to develop a privacy program because we have a long history in self-regulation and we have a long history of working with the Federal Trade Commission.

We spent four or five months researching how it could be done and we came up with this concept of privacy assessment where companies would be measured against a series of best practices. We launched the program in March 1999.

I don't think we're happy yet with the number of companies that have signed on but the challenge is to get more companies to make the commitment. We cover over 600 Webs sites. It's about 350 companies.

There's a real challenge out to American business to show they are willing to make the commitments without regulations.

Q: How did the new code of business practices come about?

A: A lot of this is coming about because of global discussions. There are three components that are needed globally on the Internet to provide consumer protection: trust marks, business codes and alternative dispute programs to protect consumers.

In the United States, Europe and the Far East, everyone is going to have to come together eventually on what are the business practices that consumers should expect.

When our code is approved and our estimated date is Sept. 8 that is going to become the heart of the standards behind our Reliability program. We think it will provide higher levels of consumer protection but it will also provide a great road map for businesses as to what they should be doing by way of how they handle complaints on line, how they handle their return policies, what kind of information should be provided on their sites.

I think as more and more companies become aware of it and comply its just going to raise the bar and bring about a higher level of business practices.

We have a code of advertising that's been around for 20 or 30 years. It is used as a guide as to what you can do in advertising. It has nothing to do with our membership. It's just out there.

That's what we would like to see happen with the code of business practices it just becomes a standard. These are good practices you should be following. If we do that and get a lot of businesses following that, then we're going to improve the experience for consumers all over the Internet.

Q: Are these new codes the foundation for worldwide business codes on line?

A: When you cross borders shopping, there's nothing out there right now [to protect consumers]. Either governments have to come together and come up with some international treaty heaven forbid because it will take 30 or 40 years, it will never happen or the private sector, working in partnership with governments, will come together in common approaches.

We know right now that our code is being used as benchmark in Europe and in the Far East for the development of other codes. We think that the codes will be developed close enough and we'll all be able to come close to a common goal. So with trust-mark programs that are meeting these codes, a consumer sitting anywhere in the world sees this, then it means a whole set of standards no matter where you are.

Q: How many different trust marks are available now?

A: It's certainly more than a dozen. It's maybe two dozen. It's hard to keep track of them all. There are more of them in consumer protection than in the privacy area. Some of the consumer protection ones try to claim that they're doing privacy and they really don't. You really have to look at the organizations behind them.

Q: So all the different trust mark programs can really become confusing to the on-line consumer and on-line businesses?

A: The danger is there are a lot of different trust marks on the Internet and consumers can really be misled. They're going to expect a certain level of protection that may not exist.

The other danger is businesses may have a tendency to go to the easier trust mark the one that doesn't require them to do much. That doesn't help the global effort to really build strong effective programs to protect consumers.

If we're going to have a global marketplace, consumers are never going to understand 50 different logos or seals.

If we don't have strong programs, then we're going to face regulation, whether its regulation in the United States or regulation with the European Commission. The way around regulation is to have good effective self-regulation programs.

Q: When the new codes are approved, will they be incorporated into the already existing BBBOnline Reliability program?

A: It will be the same trust mark, just an increase in standards. And we'll give companies a time to gravitate toward that because it is a learning process. We'll be heavily promoting it to these companies and giving them guidelines and things that they should be doing. But to be fair to them we are going to require them to do some real work. We have to give them a time to make that adjustment.

Q: When companies are looking to be a part of a trust-mark program, are they more likely to go to BBBOnline because of the Better Business Bureaus brand recognition?

A: If I were a company I certainly would do that. We do have phenomenal brand recognition. It's probably our most important asset. A lot of other groups that develop trust marks have to invest most of their money in marketing just so they get people aware of who they are.

And the other side of it is that the regulatory organizations have a high confidence level in us. So the relationships are there already. And that's another positive. Those other trust-mark efforts don't have the same relationships.

Q: Since you are still in the developing stages, do you think people are even looking at the trust marks that do exist now?

A: Actually, I think they do. It's interesting. Take our reliability program and Hewlett-Packard. Does the consumer really need our trust mark? Probably not. They know Hewlett-Packard is a quality company with a quality reputation. But if you are XYZ company and no one really knows you, then there's probably tremendous value because that may make the difference if you make the sale or not.

Now you take the privacy program and Hewlett-Packard, which is in our program. You know Hewlett-Packard but you don't really know what they are doing with your information. It becomes much more important.

Q: Will the privacy program and the reliability program remain separate programs?

A: They will for now. Ideally I would like to see them come together. But we don't have a high confidence level that most of American business is ready to make that privacy commitment. We thought it was important to do the reliability piece separate to bring that level of protection quickly to consumers. And then try to encourage more companies to improve on their privacy practices. Over a period of time as those companies become more aware of the need to improve upon what they are doing in the privacy area hopefully those programs will blend together.

Q: What will happen five years from now concerning on-line standards on a worldwide level?

A: I think [BBBOnline] will be a part of a major global initiative that comes together toward a common seal, a common set of standards and a common dispute-resolution program. If that doesn't work, then the Internet will never achieve the true opportunity of being a global marketplace.

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