How porn in the USA breeds fear in the UK

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The Independent Online

Here's an urban legend for our time - though in this case I happen to know that it isn't legendary, since it was told to me with chortling ruefulness by a friend.

Here's an urban legend for our time - though in this case I happen to know that it isn't legendary, since it was told to me with chortling ruefulness by a friend.

He had been checking his credit card statements one day when he saw a payment he didn't recognise. Further checks showed that the same amount had gone out the previous month - some £30 pounds which he couldn't explain. A call to the company established that the payee was located in the United States and that this payment was due to continue until further notice.

Then a glimmer of realisation dawned. A couple of months previously he had been browsing through pornography sites on the internet and had entered his credit card details to get to the hard stuff. And, since it wasn't tedious passages of legalistic prose he was after, he also clicked on the agreement box without reading its contents. As a result of his actions he had become a subscriber to a site he could no longer find in order to terminate the agreement.

At first he was told that he would have to live with the consequences of his stupidity until death or bankruptcy intervened, no fraud being involved; in fact after a couple more payments he managed to persuade the company to suspend the monthly order, though only after the humiliation of having to explain his predicament to the young woman in customer service.

It's a story that neatly feeds contemporary anxieties about the internet as a dangerous place for the unwary to venture, though in one crucial respect it isn't typical at all. This wasn't an unauthorised use of his credit card, after all, just an unwise one - and above all it is the dread of insecurity, rather than momentary folly, that afflicts most potential internet customers.

Yesterday's story of the man who discovered a database of customers' bank details on a Powergen website represents the real terror - that we will find ourselves prey to an unseen horde of digi-muggers the moment we complete our first purchase. The mental image of the average internet shopper is of Goofy in a Hawaiian shirt, wallet flapping from a back pocket as he saunters blithely down a Tijuana back-street, shadowed by four slavering wolves.

Those who want to get the e-commerce juggernaut rolling desperately need to find some way to release this handbrake of consumer timidity: last year the US Federal Trade Commission chairman claimed that 61 per cent of people who surf the internet don't buy anything because they are frightened about the security of their private information. Hardly surprising, then, that AOL's last round of television adverts should have headlined the issue of customer security or that Visa last month announced new measures to prevent fraudulent use of credit card details.

The truth is, though, that these anxieties tell us more about a primal fear of novelty than they do about e-commerce itself, because internet purchases are probably safer than a good many of the real-world transactions we conduct without a second thought.

People who happily hand over their credit cards to a barman to guarantee the tab on a night's drinking, or read the details out over the telephone to buy a theatre ticket, decline to use systems that employ cryptography powerful enough to lock out the CIA.

What's more, the retailers are far more vulnerable than we are. "Doing business on the internet," one American e-businessman said recently, "is the equivalent of having someone walk into your store wearing a ski mask without any ID and offering a bank counter check to purchase a $2,000 stereo system."

If virtual shoplifting wasn't even easier than virtual pickpocketing I might be more worried. As it is, they have every incentive in the world to make the systems safer than Fort Knox.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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