Liberty Alliance investigates alternative to Passport

A joint effort that includes Bell Canada, Sun Microsystems and more than 30 other companies will attempt to create a standard means of storing and managing the personal data of online consumers in e-commerce transactions.

The consortium, which calls itself the Liberty Alliance, comes only a few days after Microsoft has opened up to the broader business community its Passport service, which performs a similar function.

The notion of a digital identity — which could include a user name, credit card number and transaction histories — has been touted by technology companies as a vital component to the future of Web services.

For example, Jonathan Schwartz, Sun’s senior vice-president of corporate strategy and planning, said in a conference call that even the best e-commerce firms have found it difficult to cross-sell on the Web. “Many companies, if you think about it, maintain your information in a multitude of different directories,” he said, adding that security creates major obstacles.

“I’m sure there are a lot of companies that would love to provide movies on demand to customers, for example, so long as they could send it in a way that would be authenticated with a bill that would be paid.”

Though Microsoft’s two-year-old Passport service already has an estimated 165 million worldwide members and more than 70 vendor partners, companies like Sun and others have criticized it for failing to properly secure information. There have also been concerns about one company controlling the single sign-on process. Microsoft has since said it will let third parties register Passport members, but it will still handle the authentication itself.

David Jones, who leads an advocacy group called Electronic Frontier Canada, said people are put off impulse purchases when they are asked for personal information and to get out their credit card.

“This is not a consumer-driven development. This is an e-commerce service-provider driven development,” Jones said. “If you’re in the business of selling things, you’re strongly in favor of a mechanism that reduces the friction of making online purchases.”

Charlotte Burke, Bell Canada’s vice-president of business development, said Bell, which is so far the only Canadian member of the Liberty Alliance, may prove a good testing ground to solve what the group sees as e-commerce identity problems.

“In may ways, our company is a cross-section of these many different types of companies trying to participate,” she said. “We have an ISP; with Emergis, we have a B2B enabler; we’ve got content. Just as a corporation, we are a microcosm of this challenge.”

The Liberty Alliance has pledged to allow customers to retain their personal information while providing a universal open standard for single sign-on with decentralized authentication and open authorization from multiple providers.

According to Microsoft Canada spokesman Brian Stock, those goals aren’t that far removed from what the company has been trying to with Passport.

“We are all for interoperability,” he said, adding that the success of Web services will ultimately rely on a seamless user experience.

Burke said it was important for a company like Bell, which already runs Passport, to stay involved in the various services — AOL has a similar offering, for example — until a dominant standard emerges.

“Passport really is an alias — it’s another name,” she said. “It hasn’t really, at the deepest level, tackled the issue (of privacy and common identity). Because we’re looking a layer below that, there’s absolutely no reason technologies or naming schemes like Passport couldn’t ride on top of that. They ride on top today.”

Schwartz said the Liberty Alliance is still seeking other members, and that Microsoft had been invited to participate. Stock said it was too early to tell how well the two approaches would work together.

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