E-Commerce Growing Pains: No Cause for Retreat

Online shoppers are like racehorses. They’re on track, but they spook easily.

Until the terrorist attacks of September 11th, consumer concerns about security and privacy on the Internet topped nearly every analyst’s list of barriers to wide-scale e-commerce. Now, with U.S. security as fragile as it has ever been, online shoppers are spooked. The threat of technological terrorism is spiking Internet security concerns to an all-time high, which may crimp an already sluggish e-commerce adoption rate.

My advice to online shoppers in these difficult times? Fasten your seat belt, but not so tightly that you can’t reach your wallet. E-commerce has a lot to offer, perhaps more than ever.

Law of the Land

Not surprisingly, the recent weeks have seen a surge in activity on Capitol Hill relating to national security. The U.S. Congress has launched into a reactionary legislation frenzy, introducing more than 70 pieces of legislation since September 11th.

For example, the Internet came, at least in part, under the controlling arm of Congress on September 13th when the Senate passed the Combating Terrorism Act of 2001, which expands the government’s authority to collect transactional data about Internet communications.

This move sparked, of course, a response from civil liberty advocates. Now hold on a minute, cried the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other privacy watchdogs. Understandably, these groups have implored Congress to take more than 30 minutes to enact major legislation that points the U.S. intelligence radar towards its residents.

Basic rights to privacy, upon which this country was founded, should not be repealed with a knee-jerk, these groups argue.

Mom and Dad Fight

And I think the watchdogs were right. However, I also understand that the government is desperate to compensate for an egregiously deficient intelligence operation crippled by in-fighting, outdated technology, and poorly paid personnel.

We are embroiled in a month-old debate defined more by emotion than by reason, with a nervous government on one side and tiptoeing privacy backers on the other. There are valid motives and arguments on both sides. At this early stage, I’m not about to endorse one over the other.

The problem is that in the meantime, while legislators and lobbyists duke it out, e-shoppers might be thinking it’s time to shuffle out the back door, leaving the e-commerce realm for another day.

Breathe, Breathe

Some resent a government trying to clamp down on a free world. Others are afraid that there are now more scam artists than ever lurking in the virtual shadows, waiting to pounce on their credit-card information as it travels over the Web. Still others are worried about terrorists using the Internet to drain bank accounts and unleash computer viruses.

All justifiable fears, to be sure. And collectively, they contribute to a shifting perception of the Internet. There’s now a perceived black hole behind computer screens, which many consumers will sidestep on their way to the corner store.

But I don’t think consumers should abandon the Internet. I think they should just take a deep breath and hang on.

Hegelian E-Commerce

Security on the Internet is more than adequate for commerce and will only improve with new preemptive mechanisms. Online security is now taking top priority at software and networking firms, and will be addressed less with patches and more with code base changes and multi-tiered contingencies.

As far as personal privacy is concerned, Congress will continue to test boundaries with overanxious legislation, until the vague silhouette of the enemy we are fighting becomes more tangible. Broad-brushed legislation will either self-destruct in Congress or be mitigated by the courts shortly thereafter.

In other words, security and privacy are being boosted in some ways, hindered in others. Thesis will collide with antithesis, and we’ll live with the synthesis. In technology and in all areas of evolution, this process is as necessary today as it was in the early 19th century, when German philosopher Georg Hegel described how reality unfolds.

Bytes are Sealed

On September 11th, our notions of reality were invalidated. And now we’re struggling to find our way to a new reality, uncomfortable as it may be.

We have the obligation to defend our basic rights, but we shouldn’t discard the most efficient commerce tool ever conceived while we wait for a perfect resolution to the online privacy versus online security debate.

We’re in the midst of an important evolutionary phase as the Internet moves out of childhood and into adolescence. And over the course of the coming months, the Internet will emerge better for the wear.

What do you think? Let’s talk about it.


Note: The opinions expressed by our columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of the E-Commerce Times or its management.


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