The average Net user wants more, not less, government involvement in data protection.

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The Independent Culture
According to the latest American Internet User Survey, conducted by the Emerging Technology Research Group (ETRG, http://www.cyberdialogue.com/frame.html), nearly 16 million people in the US have used the Internet within the past 12 months but haven't used it since. This is a shockingly high number, considering how much investment goes into the technical infrastructure that allows people to get connected.

There is a general assumption in the Internet community that the only thing that stops people from using the Internet en masse is the cost of hardware and software difficulties. If only computers were cheaper and easier to use, then everyone would take the plunge into cyberspace. This thinking is supported by ICL research, which found that more than 68 per cent of high-street shoppers would appreciate home shopping facilities. But the ETRG survey indicates that our assumptions may be wrong, and more work must be done to take the Internet to the mass market.

My own theory, stemming from years of looking at frustrated users in Cyberia cafes around the world, is that it is still all but impossible to find what you are looking for on the Net. All of the search engines and directories so far have collectively failed to provide a simple service that would actually help me to find my favourite shop or online service. Watching with me and sharing the frustrations of cybersurfers has been Keith Teare, co-founder of Cyberia and my business partner for many years. He eventually decided to do something about the poor "findability" of Websites and moved to Silicon Valley, founding Centraal, a company that provides a simplified directory service via a special plug-in (see related article on page eight).

However, making the Internet easier to use is only half of the solution. A clue to the second obstacle to mass uptake can be found in a Business Week survey that shows that 65 per cent of respondents did not use the Net because they felt that their personal information would not be secure. The survey also found that 61 per cent of people who are not currently online said that government protection of personal information would encourage them to explore the Net further. Only nine per cent of Internet users would trust a Website's posted policy statement on data protection. These are damning statistics, indicating that building consumer trust in the Web is going to need government legislation.

More than 53 per cent of those surveyed by Business Week thought that government should pass laws regulating how personal information can be collected and used on the Net. Certain progress in that area was made last week, when Firefly announced a new solution that will allow customers to create their own Web profiles and to decide which information they want to make public and which needs to be protected. The new privacy-enhanced "passport software" will dynamically generate a form that allows me to decide if my post code or age can be used for marketing purposes, but it will keep my e-mail address safe from the curious eyes of spammers.

Firefly's solution is the first serious attempt at industry self-regulation and is likely to gain approval from both browser makers and the direct- marketing community. It is definitely a step in the right direction from the Boston-based company, but will it be enough to allay public fears over Internet security?

US Net users had a tough ride last year, after a large marketing company was caught selling individuals' social security numbers and unlisted phone numbers to other online marketing agents. In response, the US government, suffering from an overdose of laid-back Californian attitude, proposed a very liberal framework for self-regulation, to be introduced and monitored by independent auditors. This complete lack of sensitivity to consumers' fears was further demonstrated last week by Ira Magaziner, senior adviser to President Clinton, who indicated that the White House would prefer to see the industry regulating itself. "The best thing we can do as a government is get out of the way," he declared at a presentation on "Customer privacy on the Web", postulating development of some generally approved codes of conduct instead of firm and clear legislation. It seems that the US government is confused by the Silicon Valley rhetoric and deaf to the message from consumers, which is that the average Net user wants more, not less, government involvement in online data protection.

Surprisingly, the American experience may have little effect on electronic commerce in Europe, as the data protection standards on this side of the pond are a lot more stringent, and retailers are house-trained in responsible treatment of customers' data. A recent book by Philip E Agre and Marc Rotenburg, Technology and Privacy: The New Landscape (MIT Press, http://mitpress.mit.edu/book-home), provides an explanation for why Europeans have not suffered from online data protection abuse as much as the Americans. The book traces a history from the early privacy laws of the 1970s to the present day, and details Europe's recognition of the right to informational self-determination and greater awareness of the issue thanks to four generations of data protection on the Continent.

The book also points out that trust between consumers and retailers is only sustainable if each new technology is considered at the time of release, and renegotiated accordingly to avoid abuse of the new media and to take into account the ignorance of users.

Statutory licensing schemes for direct electronic marketing, requirements for the encryption of any data passing over the network and criminal penalties for selling customers' personal information are all mandatory if we are to provide the public with a sense of absolute trust in the Internet. Thus government involvement is crucial to sustain the public trust and allow electronic commerce to flourish, avoiding a US-style free-for-all. Otherwise, despite the advances in bandwidth and credit-card security, online customers will vote with their feet and join the 16 million "churners" uncovered by the ETRG survey.

Please send your views on the online privacy protection schemes to eva@never.com

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