Caught in a Net of corruption?

What do Joe and Jane Public think of the Internet? Prepare yourself for a shock.
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Fraud, addiction and pornography. No, not a misplaced review of the latest Quentin Tarantino film, but the words that Which? Online used to summarise its findings, published yesterday, on the attitudes of British consumers to the Internet. Discussing research carried out by Mori, the report, "Conspiracy, Controversy or Control - are we ready for the e-nation?", came as a shock to its authors.

"It is incredible that the Internet is still generating such strength of feeling amongst consumers," says Alan Stevens, editor of Which? Online. The work of such a respected body, when it comes to understanding the public, is bound to be carefully noted by Internet service and content providers alike.

Most consumer fears hinge on the protection of personal financial information. Nearly half of the 2,124 people confidentially interviewed in the first quarter of this year believe that the risk of fraud is high. One in three even sees the Internet as a threat to national security. A huge concern over pornography also appears, focused largely on the supposed ease with which children can access unsolicited obscene material. Almost 60 per cent of all respondents believe that the Internet undermines the morality of the nation, with only 13 per cent saying they would feel comfortable letting their children use it unsupervised. Additional fears include grave threats to family life, and dangers to individuals who may become isolated or psychotic.

The report's publication coincides with outrage over the sentence given by a German court to Felix Somm, former managing director of CompuServe Deutschland, who was given a suspended sentence of three years on payment of DM100,000 when found guilty of aiding the dissemination of pornography on the Internet. Ironically, since this case began Germany has introduced a law that implies self-regulation, since online service providers cannot now be held responsible for the material to which they provide access. But, as the Which? Online report concludes, stories such as this only heighten the concern of the general public.

Dr Mark Griffiths, senior lecturer in psychology at Nottingham Trent University, believes that people know too much about too little of the Internet. "Unsurprisingly, perceptions of the Internet are based on people's exposure to it, as well as their level of competence in using it. According to the research only 14 per cent of the adult population has access to the Internet, and half of these have been using it for less than a year. So the Internet is still a relatively unknown medium and leads to misunderstandings with users and non-users alike. People need to know that they are being protected from the evil in our society, and the unregulated Internet challenges this comfort zone." The situation now is not unlike the concern about radiation sickness and social collapse that spread with the introduction of television. And from the opposite perspective, even Alexander Graham Bell apparently believed that use of the telephone would eliminate disease, since people would not have to speak face to face.

However, the Which? Online report also indicates that once people are online, their perceptions change dramatically, even though users and non- users both agree, to the tune of 72 per cent, that the Internet should be regulated. Again a serious mismatch of common ignorance against actual practice is highlighted. For example, although many people said they first turned to the Internet as a business or research tool, they ended up valuing it for its ability to keep them in touch with friends and family - in a manner that is presumably not destructive of family life. And when it comes to fraud, more than 80 per cent of Internet users said they would shop again on the Web once they had done so for the first time. Another crucial misunderstanding was the cost of connection, with only 10 per cent of interviewees getting that right.

In Britain today, approximately 7 million individuals have Internet access. Users tend to be male, under 35, living in the south, affluent and employed, and have children living with them. Age is one of the biggest determinants in Internet usage. More than half are under 35 and only 7 per cent are over 55. This contrasts dramatically with the US, where, for example, more and more pensioners are going online, with some Internet service providers having more of this group on their books than people in their teens and twenties. Interestingly, this American experience is reflected in the subscribers to Which? Online, suggesting that a trusted brand is important for technology reaching new demographic groups.

Which? Online plans to extend this work to try to answer the many questions it raises. For example, the belief in rampant fraud on the Net - over half the interviewees thought it rife, even though lawyers for Which? could not find a single case - is one that particularly exercises the minds of those concerned to promote electronic commerce. Follow-up research will try to find out how to allay such fears. In the meantime, Stevens believes that the educative process must be pursued with great energy and imagination by online providers.

"Internet service providers and content providers have an enormous responsibility to ensure that the Internet is a relatively safe place, but also to guide the consumer and show them the benefits of the Internet," he says. The results of this work have not changed Which? Online's own commitment to a self-regulated industry. The company will itself be using education programs, consumer groups and different media to achieve not only a widespread change in attitude but also an enhancement of the Internet skills that people have.

A copy of the Which? Online annual Internet report is available from Firefly Communications (0171-381 4505), price pounds 20.