March 24, 1999
Angela Gray and Berlinda Saenz
Comment P994312: U.S. Perspectives on Consumer Protection in the Global Electronic Marketplace
RE: Consumer and Business Education
To The Commission:
As concerned consumers we are interested in the global electronic marketplace and measures that are being taken and/or should be taken to educate consumers. We are graduate students currently enrolled in a course called, "Internet Law" through Virginia Tech's Finance Department. This course has provided us with an awareness of the realities of electronic commerce, which encompasses issues of privacy, technology, security, laws, intellectual property, and much more. Our specific backgrounds lie in marketing and instructional technology in education. Albeit, our backgrounds vary we have a common thread, that is to provide consumers with the skills and knowledge to empower them to make wise decisions when using internet commerce. To support our response we have referenced consumer education experts.
Since electronic commerce is an emerging field educating consumers about the trends and issues of online commerce is a lifelong process essential to the economic well-being of society (Knapp, 1991). Due to the diverse capabilities of this technology life-long education needs to be an on-going process. In order to educate consumers of all ages we feel that a collaborative effort has to be made by consumer professionals within the education, industry, and government sectors. Specifically consumer awareness efforts should focus on the young consumers who are roaming online and who are at-risk of being taken advantage of by deceitful online services.
It is our opinion that such dishonest online services negatively impact the image and growth of electronic commerce. Many consumers are reluctant to purchase over the Internet out of fear that their privacy will be violated or that their credit card number will be stolen. However, there is simply not enough data to conclude that the internet is some "beast" that we must steer away from. For example, we hear horror stories of someone's child disappearing after being manipulated by a stranger while chatting online. Yet in the physical world parents do not entertain the idea of their child disappearing while walking home from school. Consumers are apprehensive about posting their credit card number online for fear that it may be stolen by a hacker. Yet, in reality, giving your credit card to a waitress in a restaurant may result in a higher risk than that of entering a visa card number on the internet. It is simply unprofitable for a hacker to sift through the internet to find a credit card with a $5,000 limit. Having said as much, these are consumer concerns that give way to a negative perception of the internet. In order for electronic commerce to continue to grow these issues must first be resolved.
As concerned consumers, we asked ourselves what is presently being done to educate all consumers in regards to online commerce? Efforts towards educating the consumer have already been made by educators, organizations, and the government. Currently, some educational institutions are making attempts towards educating learners at the middle and high school levels about consumer issues. It was not obvious in our research whether electronic commerce issues are encompassed within the consumer education curriculum in schools.
In our internet law course we discussed one of the better known organizations, whose mission it is to alert and protect consumers against unethical business services, is the Better Business Bureau (BBB). Before making a purchase consumers can check out the Better Business Bureaus for reports on specific businesses. In our research for this project we found that the Better Business Bureau adapted its focus to informing the consumer on the latest online privacy trust seal program intended to protect and secure their information online. It would benefit all consumers to know about the BBB and the services that they provide for online protection. (Available online web site:
http://www.bbb.org/about/index.html). Another organization that consumers would benefit from is The Internet Alliance which has already taken steps to educate consumers. For example, The Internet Alliance has established a brochure online to assist consumers with online purchasing. This brochure identifies several tips for going online, how to protect children, a list of resources and a glossary to define technical terms (Online brochure: http://www.isa.net/project-open/brochure.html).
Since e-commerce is an emerging field, things are constantly changing and so it behooves consumers to educate themselves on current e-commerce issues. Adult consumers are responsible for educating themselves as well their children, especially if they are considering online commerce. We as adult learners can take proactive measures such as enrolling in consumer educational courses provided by a university, local college, or community center such as the YMCA. On a personal level we as shrewd consumers should take precaution, such as investigating answers to the following questions, before engaging in electronic commerce:
Generally speaking, consumers should learn to be proactive in their purchasing decisions by asking such questions to better protect themselves.
In order to tackle the issue of education in global electronic commerce consumers' perceptions must be changed. Customers must feel confident that the internet is a safe medium in which to purchase goods. Although, the real threat may not reside within the actual transaction, but rather the integrity of the destination the information reaches (Wagner and Machlis 1997). Consumers should be aware of where their personal information is going and how it is be used. One solution would be to empower consumers with information and facts to protect themselves. This empowerment will allow consumers to prevent harm against themselves as well as increase their confidence about the Internet. This education will eliminate a lot of the paranoia that currently plagues the Internet.
Education will provide consumers with the tools they need to use common sense. No matter what medium we use it is the consumers' responsibility to be skeptical, as well as make themselves aware of the issues involved with online commerce. Purchasing on the Internet is like any other purchase where the buyer "should beware". The solution is simple, supply consumers with congruent tools to make common sense decisions.
In conclusion, communicating the current laws, technology, privacy, or security issues to consumers is a lifelong commitment that must be undertaken by educators, business people, and government. It is essential to the protection of all consumers engaging in the electronic global community. If the Internet is to provide growth for online commerce, consumers and commerce individuals alike need to work towards establishing a safe, secure, and trustworthy presence.
We thank the Federal Trade Commission for providing us with an opportunity to be involved in a challenging debate that will impact how we protect ourselves when purchasing online.
Angela Gray and Berlinda Saenz