Is public concern about privacy holding up commerce on the Internet?
It sure looks that way. Privacy is a hot topic these days, whether you're:
1) the President of the United States, 2) someone out for a walk in New York City trying to dodge the 2,380 surveillance cameras in public places identified by the ACLU last December, 3) an employee worried about making vacation plans via company e-mail (a 1997 American Management Association survey, at http://www.amanet.org/survey/elec97.htm, found that 35.3 percent of respondent firms conducted at least one of five forms of electronic monitoring), or 4) a babysitter wondering whether the nannycam is hidden in the VCR or that big stuffed bear on the shelf.
Cyberspace is no different. Whether they are typing in credit card information for an online purchase or simply registering with an e-mail address, most Net users have doubts that their information will be used properly. A March 1998 Business Week/Harris survey, "Online Insecurity," found that 56 percent of those who have made purchases online are "very concerned" about two possibilities: that the company or one of its employees might use their credit information to make purchases of their own; or that their credit information will be made available to others without permission. Of those yet to go online, 61 percent said that they would be more likely to start using the Net if the privacy of their information and communications could be protected.
Distrust extends even to noncredit information. The Harris survey found that 59 percent of respondents never register at sites that ask them to do so by providing personal information. A series of polls conducted by Georgia Tech's Graphic, Visualization & Usability Center (http://www.cc.gatech.edu/gvu) has found similar doubts among those online. Since 1994, GVU's WWW User Survey has been polling Net users on such topics as shopping on the Net, data privacy, and information-gathering. (They now schedule such polls twice a year, in April and October.) The seventh survey, which was run from April 10, 1997 through May 31, 1997, found that 69 percent of respondents didn't register at sites because there was no statement detailing how the information would be used. In addition, 62 percent failed to register because they simply didn't trust the Web site-and approximately 40 percent of respondents have provided false information when registering.
Providing false information and failing to register at all are good ways to avoid a pet peeve among many online users: mass mail. According to the GVU survey, 44 percent of those not registering did so because they had to reveal their postal address, 25 percent because their e-mail address was required. Seventy-four percent of respondents disagreed strongly with the statement that they liked receiving mass e-mail. Sixty-one percent deleted mass e-mail without even reading it, which means cyber-marketing wizards need to come up with better subject lines than "MAKE TRILLIONS NOW!!!"
The privacy question has spurred online businesses to step up efforts to reassure the public that they won't sell your e-mail address, credit information, Social Security number, or shopping profile to the friendly folks over at www.psychic_aromatherapists.com. TRUSTe (http://www.etrust.org), a nonprofit privacy organization designed to allay consumer fears about privacy (and thus, encourage more online commerce), awards its "trustmark" to Web sites that comply with its standards of privacy protection and disclosure. The Online Privacy Alliance (http://www.privacyalliance.org/), a consortium of businesses and associations established in 1998, aims to promote Net commerce through online privacy policies and self-regulation. If businesses can allay user suspicion through aggressive and open self-regulation, they can look forward to increased commerce on the Net-
and forget about having to deal with legislated privacy. It might be a losing battle-53 percent of respondents to the Business Week/Harris survey felt that the government should pass Internet privacy laws now, while only 19 percent felt that groups should be allowed to develop their own privacy standards without government action.
At the same time, privacy-enhancing programs and services now offer users protection from data-hungry Web sites. The Anonymizer (http://www.anonymizer.com) allows customers to surf the Web and post e-mail-you guessed it-anonymously. The Electronic Privacy Information Center (http://www.epic.org), a privacy watchdog, offers links to "Practical Privacy Tools" such as anonymous remailers, data and file encryption programs, and even services to defeat the bogeyman of the Internet: the cookie.