Act now to self-regulate or wait on Washington

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Exactly a month ago, I listened to a Federal Trade Commission representative politely warning about the likelihood of online privacy legislation.

FTC Commissioner Mozelle W. Thompson spoke at the American Business Media's B2B E-Publishing, E-Content and E-Commerce Conference and Expo in New York, a two-day event attended by online and print publishers and dot-com companies. After a slow start, Thompson warmed to the subtext of his luncheon keynote. After all, he was there to deliver-in gentle phrasing-a message. And he made sure he did so.

The industry, he helpfully suggested, should regulate itself, keeping in close contact with FTC rule-watchers in the gray areas. He encouraged those in the room to call the FTC with questions and concerns, "because if we call you, it gets much more expensive," he quipped.

Admirably, the FTC has not rushed to create rules for the fast-evolving b-to-b online world, prefering instead to monitor the space by sponsoring meetings or participating in key industry forums, like the ABM conference. When asked by an audience member if it was "too late" for the b-to-b media to regulate itself, Thompson said he didn't think so. But, tellingly, he observed that when the new Congress arrives in January, "privacy will be a front-burner" issue.

Much of the online privacy discussion has centered on the business-to-consumer scenario. As I've written in this space before, b-to-b interactions are different. Businesses understand that the efficiencies of online commerce will necessitate "visibility" of their products, prices and procedures with trading partners. Suppliers in particular may not like all this exposure, but they get the logic of it.

Meanwhile, the b-to-b industry has begun to take self-regulatory steps. A new, standardized registration form is being promulgated by the ABM-read our story about it on Page 2-and the group is working on revised ethical standards for online journalism that ought to be ready by the end of this year. Late last month, more than a dozen direct marketers formed The Responsible Electronic Communications Alliance, which seeks to develop standards and best practices for e-mail marketing.

Will these efforts be enough to dissuade legislators? As Thompson telegraphed, privacy legislation is likely to be high on the agenda for a Congress looking to quell the worries of online consumers. Unfortunately, there is a real worry that rules crafted for consumer marketers will have unintended, negative consequences for their b-to-b brethren.

And that's just the start. Even more problematic from a regulatory and industry standpoint will be hybrids of media companies and online marketplaces. Publishers and Net market-makers alike will need to monitor carefully how Washington policy wonks address these new, evolving entities.

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