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 / Spring 2009 / Issue 54(originally published by Booz & Company)


Watching over the Web

True digital confidence could also transform the way people use the Internet — or, more precisely, it could complete the transformation already begun. Future growth in an Internet-based economy will not be driven by penetration of service; the number of people paying for service is finally approaching a saturation point. Instead, growth in the Internet area will be driven by increases in usage. As people gain the confidence to make more use of online commerce — turning naturally to Net-based software, banking services, catalogs, ticket agencies, publications, music and video download sites, and many more applications to come — the medium will realize its full potential as an enabler of commerce and civilization.

Reasons for Concern
Most people have had personal ex­perience with some form of Internet abuse or breakdown, but the problems are so complex and interwoven that few people see their full extent and impact. There are, essentially, four categories of concern:

Network integrity and quality of service. These concerns involve the reliability of the technological platform. Criminal attacks can undermine access to the Internet. Viruses and malware (deliberate at­tacks through the system on end-user devices and local area networks) take a toll that can include not just inconvenience but also large-scale hardware destruction: Consumers Union found that over a six-month period, spyware infections prompted nearly 1 million U.S. households to replace their computers. Even the ubiquitous, low-level irritation of spam e-mail takes a toll; 55 percent of Internet users say spam has reduced their trust in the integrity of their e-mail, and 18 percent see spam as a “big problem.” Finally, peaks in traffic load can lead to slow service or weak connectivity, a problem that threatens to grow as more people download and stream video from the Internet. Network pro­viders have known for some time that about 80 percent of Internet bandwidth is consumed by only 10 percent of consumers, and congestion goes up with use of file-sharing and video applications. For example, when the BBC iPlayer was introduced in December 2007, bandwidth usage surged in the U.K., so much so that Internet ser­vice providers (ISPs) tried to get the BBC to partially fund the network upgrades they needed.

Privacy and data protection. The safety of consumers’ private electronic information — their identities, passwords, and usage profiles, and even the information they post about themselves — must be ensured. People need to feel secure that their private data won’t be published inadvertently or without their consent, and that they won’t be vulnerable to identity theft, in which criminals replicate or use their private data for fraud. Most social networking sites allow users to limit access to only friends and trusted individuals, but almost half of the consumers on these sites make their profiles available to everyone. The effects of this choice on personal safety, security, and reputation are still uncertain: For instance, as businesses use Web searches to check the validity of job applications, out­dated or fraudulent information about a person may show up, with the applicant having no recourse to delete or change it. Organizations also face data risks: In the United Kingdom, the national revenue and customs department had to apologize to customers of investment bank UBS Laing and Cruickshank after losing a computer disk, sent by the bank, that contained addresses and account details of UBS’s Personal Equity Plan investors.

The protection of minors. The well-being of those younger than 18 must be defended in the online world. This includes protecting children from exposure to sexually explicit, violent, and otherwise undesirable content; discouraging cyber-bullying and other hostile behavior (such as the posting of demeaning photographs); preventing solicitation of children by adults; and fighting the sexual abuse of children online, including prosecuting the purveyors of child-related sexual content. The extent of this threat is often underestimated, but it is substantial; almost 25 percent of youths surveyed have been exposed to indecent material, and one June 2008 posting in Australia of sexual content involving children received 12 million hits within 76 hours.

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