Tuesday, February 19, 2008


Building trust in Googlistan

From The Statesman

ND Batra

A recent Pew/Internet report regarding the privacy implications of digital mobility said that many people in the United States “are jumping into the fast, mobile, participatory Web without considering all the implications.”

Of course that is true of other countries too. Just imagine India’s 237 million mobile phone users who keep chirping without any thought of who might be listening to them. As the Pew report stated: “If nothing really bad has happened to someone, they tend neither to worry about their personal information nor to take steps to limit the amount of information that can be found about them online.” But the invisible threat of someone watching and listening is ubiquitous.

The enthusiasm about the Internet among the young and the old all over the world has been increasing steadily. Painful memories of the deflated dotcom era have faded. The digital age is rising again, it would seem, on a foundation of hope, as more and more users begin to realise the Internet’s potential in diverse fields from online teaching to micro-financing to grocery shopping.

The main reason for the growing popularity of the Internet, especially the wireless mobile, is that it makes the users’ lives easier and also creates business possibilities where none existed earlier. Though this is basically an adult view ~ teenagers value the Internet for different reasons ~ the fact remains that its popularity among all sections of society not only in the United States but everywhere else too is multiplying.

The phenomenal rise of Google and the recent Microsoft’s bid to acquisition Yahoo! shows that dotcom companies have not only been growing rapidly but the future is digital and mobile. The users regard the mobile Internet not only as a limitless source of free information available at a click but also a shopping mall, banking street and place to socialise.

Of course, some people still don’t feel confident about trusting the computer screen ~ even if an online store gives free home deliveries; they would rather go to the store, browse and enjoy the sensuous experience of personal shopping.

There is a widely held view that the Internet is a genuine cause of concern regarding privacy, pornography, accuracy of information and accountability. Hopefully as these concerns diminish, the dotcoms would become a pre-eminent engine driving the economy everywhere. The question of accountability is a typical one that the American public normally asks, whether it is regarding a toy manufacturer, pharmaceutical company or a mutual fund company. But since the Internet is not owned by anyone and is impossible to control, the question of accountability becomes intriguing and difficult to handle.

At present very few people feel that there is any online accountability. The American people are worried about the government and private companies collecting information about them when they are online. Data-sniffers do make us vulnerable on the Internet. If in a shopping mall someone watches or stalks you, you become alert and take some action; or maybe you choose to do nothing. On the Internet you don’t know who is watching you and why, which creates a diffused sense of anxiety and consequently reduces trust in the system.

The adult users’ view of the Internet contrasts sharply, in many respects, with what American teenagers think about cyberspace. Teenagers love the Internet’s freedom and anonymity. For them it is a source of empowerment and a zone of unsupervised freedom. Another Pew/Internet December 2007 survey, Teens and Social Media reported that teenagers’ “use of social media ~ from blogging to online social networking to creation of all kinds of digital material ~ is central” to their lives, with girls ahead of boys in the blogosphere.

“Digital images ~ stills and videos ~ have a big role in teen life. Posting them often starts a virtual conversation. Most teens receive some feedback on the content they post online,” the survey reported.

Unlike adults who want the Internet to be regulated somehow, teenagers prefer the Internet to be left alone, lest its freedom be compromised. They are aware of the dangers of meeting strangers and predators online but feel confident of dealing with the situation on their own, a view that also finds expression in other reports about the Internet and teenagers. Teenagers are also not as much concerned about surveillance as are adult users, which seems a little puzzling.

I believe teenagers’ indifferent attitude regarding data mining and profiling is due to the fact that they have very little to lose in material terms, for example, credit card identity theft, financial blackmail, and bad credit.

Fear is a natural emotion and it grows as we grow older. My own students whom I occasionally use as captive focus groups to see which way the social winds are blowing feel that it is the responsibility of the individual or parents, not the government, to supervise the Net. But that does not answer the question about teenagers who come from families where parental supervision is not available.

When the family bonds are not strong and guidance is minimal, how should teenagers deal with the freedom of the Internet, especially with portals like MySpace and Facebook, where kids can do whatever they want, posting personal and private thoughts, and all kinds of pictures? Creating trust in Googlistan is a great corporate challenge.

(ND Batra is professor of communications at Norwich University, Vermont)

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