By Richard Morin
By Richard Morin
Janet Reno, call off your antitrust lawyers who are chasing Bill Gates and Microsoft from courtroom to courtroom. It's time for the federal government and our political leaders to concentrate on what really troubles Americans about the Internet.
The issues are privacy and security, not Windows98. Together, these twin worries are keeping the Internet from becoming the shopping mall of the future, according to a new national survey of 1,011 randomly selected adults by Louis Harris and Associates for Privacy and American Business, a private think tank.
The survey should disabuse America's political leadership of the notion that cyberspace is a sparsely populated playground for nerds. According to the poll, about 39 percent of all Americans are online, a powerful and growing political force. And about one in four Net users say they have purchased products, services or information via the Internet nearly 18 million people.
Overall, the poll found that more than eight out of 10 Internet users say they are concerned about threats to their personal privacy when they're online, with the overwhelming majority of these users saying they are "very concerned" about privacy issues. Six percent say they personally have been the victim of an online invasion of their privacy.
More importantly, the survey revealed that most Internet users remain wary of doing business on the Internet.
At first glance, the Internet is the perfect showroom, benefiting both business and the customer. The Internet never closes. It's instantaneously available from anywhere in the world. There are no high-pressure salespeople to avoid if you're a customer (or to pay if you're a business owner). Potential customers can browse and comparison shop to their hearts' content and seek exactly how much or how little product information they want.
But this match made in cyberspace remains unrequited, and privacy concerns are the reason why. Barely half of all Internet users 53 percent say they are confident that most companies offering products and services on the Internet "use the personal and confidential information that customers provide in a proper manner," according to a summary of the survey results.
Potential online customers aren't just fearful that some hacker is lurking in the phone lines to hijack their credit card number or steal it from a website. Many worry that personal information such as addresses and telephone numbers, as well as general information about buying habits and preferences may be sold or otherwise released by website without the customers' knowledge or consent.
What should the cyber business community do to allay these concerns? Overwhelming majorities of Internet users said they wanted websites to post detailed information about what information the sites will or will not release about their customers.
Eight in 10 of those surveyed also said they supported "privacy audits" of companies with websites, to be conducted by independent accounting firms that would publicly report their findings. An equally large majority of users favored a national program run by the Better Business Bureau to receive, investigate and resolve online privacy complaints. And just as many said every business should list on its website a company official who would be responsible for dealing with complaints from customers who felt personal information about them was being used improperly.
"The results of the survey, especially concerning meaningful, verifiable privacy policies, are made all the more important by the Federal Trade Commission's recent report that only 14 percent of commercial websites in the U.S. tell consumers anything about the site's information practices, and only about 2 percent have any clear privacy policies posted," says Patrick Sullivan of Price Waterhouse, which co-sponsored the survey. But eight in 10 respondents also said it's up to private companies and not the federal government to police the Internet, and big majorities support government intervention only as a last resort.
"Strong majorities of computer users and Net users agree with the Clinton administration policy to allow industry and public-interest groups to develop effective privacy rules and practices for the Internet and to legislate only if the private sector fails to implement these policies," the analysts reported.
Still, a majority of Net users believed that only legislation coupled with strong enforcement of Internet privacy laws would make most businesses adopt and observe good privacy policies. Even among those who currently do business on the Internet, barely half said incentives alone would be sufficient to encourage companies to implement good privacy standards.
"The survey findings are really a marketing survey for American businesses on the Net," says Alan Westin of Privacy and American Business. "The results tell us what strong majorities of Net users want but do not see happening yet: business websites displaying privacy notices, user choice as to how personal information is used, and especially adopting of verification techniques and dispute-resolution programs that would make such privacy policies reliable in the eyes of Net users.
"Now we know clearly what Net users want, and it's time for business to deliver the goods."
Richard Morin is director of polling for The Washington Post. "What Americans Think" appears Mondays in The Washington Post National Weekly Edition. Morin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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