Friday, June 22, 2012

The dark side of digital

Lucy Hopkins from Consumer Focus asks us to consider the potential pitfalls for consumers in the internet era, and how regulators can pre-empt the dangers.

Imagine a world where a company can refuse you a loan because one of your friends on Facebook has a bad credit rating.

Imagine you get worse deals than others when buying online because a company has tracked your search patterns and knows that you’re not much of a bargain hunter.

Imagine you leave negative comments for a company on a review site and someone starts posting malicious information about you online which spreads like wildfire, leading to you losing your job.

These are just some of the problems that an increasing number of people could be facing in the digital age.

This is not to say that digital advances are a bad thing. Widespread access to the internet and the tools and applications that have been built on it has brought many benefits—such as increased access to information, transparency, convenience and new means of communication—to millions of people.

But there has been less focus on what potential risks and challenges will emerge from how providers will deploy these technologies. Consumer Focus’ review of digital downsides 'All that's digital isn't gold: The challenges and risks of the digital age,' (pdf) aims to do just that.

It covers issues from new web monopolies and online reputation management to unfair terms of data sharing and biased search engine results.

The aim of highlighting these and other detriments is to prompt debate and persuade those who are in a position to pre-empt and prevent these (regulators, enforcers, consumer groups and companies that operate in this area) to understand and respond to these consumer  issues now before they become widespread problems.

Reviewing these downsides, it becomes clear that there is not one, single way of addressing or mitigating their effects. The rapid pace of change in the digital world moves faster than traditional regulatory approaches are typically able to, meaning classic responses might not always be suitable for the problems that are emerging.

This fast pace and unpredictable nature of change also makes it difficult to anticipate problems and plan responses.

So regulators, and other bodies working in the consumer interest, will need to start to consider how they can be more agile in order to respond to the challenges these detriments will present to our traditional regulatory frameworks.

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