Campaign for Unmetered Telecommunications

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  • E-commerce and the UK Economy

    The impact of unmetered Internet access on e-commerce is clear. Many people have commented that paying by the minute to look at a catalogue and order goods is an absurdity, and this point is so obvious it is not worth elaborating on.

    Another common discussion topic concerns changes to society: rather a lot of intermediaries (brokers, financial advisers, travel agents, car dealers and so on) will run into problems as services will be sold direct ... and will call centres be so necessary once people type in details themselves rather than rely on someone to take them down over the phone?

    (On the day this article was written Virgin Records hinted that it may pull out of High Street retail as it was being undermined by e-commerce and, in particular, the easy availability of MP3 files and players).

    But, assuming that more people go online for longer and order more as a result of unmetered Internet access, there are a number of subtler issues not often raised which we will explore here.

    Not merely easier interactions between business and consumer, but those between business and business and those between consumer and consumer will affect the cost and availability of goods and services.

    For example, in the first case, BT has mandated that all its suppliers and subcontractors move to an Internet-based ordering system by later this year and expects to save billions of pounds a year as a result. As an example of the second case, DSL Reports, from the United States, is an exemplary use of the Internet; it is a well-run site where consumers share information about a service in a responsible fashion and with much editorial input. We expect such ad hoc consumer information to appear in this country when unmetered Internet access makes continuous site maintenance possible; we have always argued that 'a thousand CUTs' are needed.

    There are a number of services which, on installing a software package, pop up windows allowing people to annotate Web sites as they move between them without impacting the site itself. We see these as potentially being of great benefit to consumers, provided that they are responsibly handled.

    In our experience a lot of people will have to raise their game. We expect that advertising and consumer law, currently geared towards postal and telephone ordering, will have to catch up quickly or the credibility of e-commerce will quickly be damaged. For example, in the week this was written (in February 2000) one of the Committee members ordered some goods; the email receipt took three days to be returned and, when the parcel turned up and he opened it, he found that a postage and packing charge, not stated on the Web site, had been added without authorisation.

    How to ensure that someone actually made the transaction suggested by their order details will have to be tackled once and for all although, given the various failed attempts to legislate on encryption issues, it is hard to see how and from where. Again this month, one of the Committee members applied for a high-interest bank account online. He filled in a form which was sent off securely ... then came back to him in the post with a self-addressed envelope and a space for his signature!

    Proprietary systems, which are still around, will have to be replaced. One of the Committee members changed bank because his former bank moved to the Internet and implemented a browser interface using Microsoft's security technologies; he had a Psion so could not access his account. With Internet appliances, based on open standards, on the way such problems will become more important.

    We will keep an eye on television-based Internet services, which will probably provide a restricted range of e-commerce sites in the first instance. Much of the benefit of the Internet is that prices can be readily compared; if a few services are preserved in a 'walled garden' the ability to make such comparisons will be lost.

    Finally, broadband Internet access and beyond are required to sell things successfully. At the moment most e-commerce Web sites are little more than crude representations of printed catalogues; the possibilities of virtual reality, sound and even force feedback (run the mouse over the 'material' to feel it) have barely been addressed.

    Text by Alastair Scott

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