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Howard Rheingold's Tomorrow

eTRUST: Establishing a Standard for Trust on the Internet
Howard Rheingold

The Internet will not become a widely-used medium for commercial transactions until universally recognized mechanisms for security and trust are established. Security means that nobody is going to send their credit card or other sensitive financial information through a network unless they are reasonably certain that this valuable information won't be intercepted and misused. There are several ways that technical solutions based on encryption (encoding and decoding) technologies can help ensure the security of transactions. Trust, however, is a different matter.

How can a consumer be certain that private information about transactions is not misused (by unscrupulous direct marketing schemes, for example)? A new organization, the eTRUST initiative, is attempting to solve the trust problem by creating a well-monitored and audited "seal of approval" similar to the UL Labs and Good Housekeeping seals that are widely trusted by consumers in the non-electronic marketplace.

Many people who use Web browsers, for example, are not aware that many websites use a technology known as "cookies" to store information about individuals' use of the Web. A website that uses cookies transfers information to and from a file on individual users' hard disks. If you browse the Web, search your disk for a file named "cookie.txt." or "MagicCookie." Don't be too alarmed. Very few sites use these files for sinister purposes. If you visit a site often and don't want to enter a password every time, the cookie can enable more efficient use of that site. Or if you are following a conversation (as you do on Electric Minds) or reading an online serial, the cookie can keep track of where you left off last time. However, the information tracked by cookies can be used to gather information about your purchasing patterns, or even what kind of information you are accessing. If the whole idea gives you the willies, you can simply delete that file from your disk. You can also set an option in your Web browser to alert you when cookies are being transferred, and allow you to stop the transfer.

Information about the kinds of information people access and the kinds of purchases they make can be very valuable to marketers. This information can also help promote culture on the Web: webzines with relatively small populations of subscribers can use demographic information to seek higher advertising revenues, and thus stay in business. But who can one trust to use that information properly? And how can that trust be ensured?

The idea of eTRUST came out of a forum in which a speaker (Francis Fukuyama, author of the recently published book Trust) pointed out that the level of transaction costs drops in relation to the level of trust among the participants in the transaction. This principle offers a useful handle for enlisting both the consumer population and the business community, both of which are interested in trust and lower transaction costs.

One of the people in the audience, Lori Fena, Executive Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, "a non-profit civil liberties organization working in the public interest to protect privacy, free expression, and access to public resources and information in new media,"t eamed up with another attendee, Charles Jennings, founder and CEO of Portland Software, a provider of a technology that provides "secure containers" for Internet transactions. The two of them enlisted other industry leaders to create guidelines for establishing a "brand" for trust approval. The basic principles the eTRUST group agreed upon are:

The right of consumers to be informed about the privacy and security consequences of an online transaction BEFORE entering into one.

Privacy and security are inexorably linked in an online transaction. There is no privacy without appropriate security measures.

No single privacy standard is adequate for all situations. The group decided to delineate three levels of privacy for commercial transactions, all of which fall into the realm of "best business practices," but which offer varying levels of privacy to the end user."

Look for the eTRUST icons to start showing up on websites in early 1997. How can trust be mediated by icons and brand names? You probably have several around your home and even in your pocket. That Underwriter's Laboratory label on electrical appliances, the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval on other household commodities, even the folding money in your pockets, are symbols that guarantee you can trust the institutions you are doing business with. You can trust them to sell you appliances that won't shock you, or household goods free of shoddy manufacture, or currency that can be exchanged for valuable goods and services. Those in charge of maintaining the integrity of those brands, from Underwriter's Laboratory to the U.S. Treasury, make sure they audit, provide a mechanism for fielding complaints, keep a sharp eye open for fakes. We trust the labels because the institutions that are responsible for them go to the trouble of maintaining vigilance for us.

Trust has always been essential to commerce. In the old days, if someone paid for your goods or services with gold, you would bite it or weigh it or even scrape off a little and dissolve it in acid to assay it. When governments started printing paper money and guaranteeing it, commerce became easier. Transaction costs dropped. Trust, guaranteed by symbols and institutions that backed up by those symbols, is part of modern industrial economies. On the Net, trust extends beyond knowing that the other party's money is good. When you browse Web pages or make transactions online, you leave electronic trails that reveal private information about you. In some cases, you consent to the use of that private information by third parties. In other cases, you want to be sure that others collect but don't misuse that information.

Privacy is already a commodity. When you buy groceries with a credit card, and get special offers in the mail for groceries you just happen to buy often, then someone in the transaction chain has put together the bar-coded information from the cash register with the information encoded on your credit card and sold that valuable information to a marketer. The result might even benefit you. The privacy principle at stake is whether or not you consent or even know that personal information about your habits is being collected, bought, and sold. And when you reveal what kind of political information interests you or what sexual orientation interests you or what health information interests you, simply by browsing the Web, you probably want to have some strong guarantee that the websites that collect that information don't misuse it.

The eTRUST organization plans to issue icons to commercial websites, which will pay for those icons on a sliding scale. The fees paid for use of the icons will pay for auditing and certification programs. Professional firms like KPMG and Coopers & Lybrand will audit the websites' compliance to privacy guidelines. And the guidelines will come in several flavors. Some sites will guarantee that they will never collect any private information, other sites will guarantee that they will collect but not use information, other sites will specify the exact uses they will allow (demographic information can be used to support cultural material like webzines, for example, through higher advertising rates). The online community, as well as professional third-party auditors, will have a means of reporting breaches of compliance.

Ultimately, a marketplace is a social system, and trust is a social agreement. Establishing a "brand" for trust is an intriguing experiment. The proof will come when people adopt, or fail to adopt, the symbolic standard.


librarybob said:

I think it would be useful to distinguish between "innate ability" and "the result after many years of acculturation and schooling" to define "dumb". I wouldn't think it likely that there has been an innate (genetic) change, so that if people have indeed been dumbed down, it must be due to environmental causes. Actually, maybe "dumbed down" isn't quite right--maybe very committed to "low" and "mid" culture that really doesn't demand much thinking. A problem I see is that both of these are "ahistoric," living in the here and now with little sense of a past and little sense of a future. They lack a larger context.

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