By Nick Patience
Privacy arguments in internet commerce continue to develop, but very few people actually think user privacy could be a money- making opportunity. One new company that thinks otherwise is PrivaSeek Inc. Yesterday it introduced its PersonaXpress set of tools to enable web users to manage the information held about them and trade that information at their own discretion to companies in return for incentives. Those companies will be monitored and audited by PrivaSeek to ensure that they do not abuse the user’s personal privacy. PrivaSeek’s aim is to be the first consumer infomediary – a data repository for online marketers to use but one that is controlled by the consumers – the owners of the information. This process, says company co-founder and CEO Larry Lozon, will enable consumers to do inverse marketing, and control what information is stored about them and who can access it. He said that users put out a lot of data exhaust and that there is value in it – it just needs to be converted into personal guidance fuel as he puts it. The company plans to make its money by charging a transaction fee for each database look-up. It will require a sufficient mass of users to be attracted to register in order to make the information marketable to companies, but Lozon believes that is possible through marketing efforts and other forms of publicity, including press conferences like the one held at the Consumer Online Forum in New York yesterday. He says the company has several partners in the shape of online marketers and e-commerce vendors that will be named later this month. He will also announce more financing to go with the $14m it received from three investment houses. There are two main elements to PersonaXpress at the moment: the PersonaVault database, which is stored at the company and the PersonaValet client application. The free downloadable client recognizes e-commerce web sites that are registered with PrivaSeek – another reason why critical mass is essential to get this to work – and it regularly pings the PersonaVault database to maintain the latest record on the consumer and keep track of any changes the consumer has made to his or her profile. The client also determines whether web sites visited are merely Persona-enabled or Persona-certified as the company calls its two levels of registration. If they are merely enabled, it will automatically map the commerce sites’ forms to the information stored in the database and fill in the forms, saving the user time and effort. But a certified site will check with users if they have flagged any of its fields to say that they do not want to divulge that information, for example a home phone number. The online marketer could then offer users an incentive to provide that information. If the users do not want to provide that information, the certified site will proceed with the transaction without the information. Co-founder and chief technology officer Greg Pasquraiello says the commerce partners will have to a sign a contract with PrivaSeek to get ‘certified’ status and it will regularly inspect their privacy practices and react to consumer complaints, including paying for an audit – a costly process that has hampered some non-profit privacy organizations in the past. He says that by tracking the change history of the consumer profiles, the company will also ensure that the user is not making up his or her personal profile. Steve Lucas, recently CIO at Excite’s MatchLogic and now CIO and government relations senior VP at PrivaSeek says the technology is based on two sets of standards, the Open Profiling Specification (OPS) and the Internet Mail Consortium’s vCard spec. He reckons it will succeed where other efforts have failed because it provides marketers with information that is permissioned and accurate. Lucas, who is working with the US and European Union governments on the current attempt to come to a compromise over storing personal data while protecting privacy, says the company has held informal briefings with governments and various privacy advocacy groups and they have all indicated that they will support PrivaSeek’s’ efforts. The $14m mezzanine funding was provided by TL Ventures and Internet capital Corp – both of Philadelphia and Sequel Venture Partners in Boulder, Colorado, close by PrivaSeek’s headquarters in Louisville, Colorado. Lozon was previously senior VP and director of General Motors’ Cyberworks organization, which built new media technologies into GM’s marketing programs. He also worked at EDS while it was a GM subsidiary. He says he has been planning PrivaSeek for eight years, but had to wait for a mass audience on the internet before launching it.