29 November 2019

How to restore trust in the internet


Earlier this month the inventor of the worldwide web Sir Tim Berners-Lee called for an online bill of rights. That’s not a bad idea. But the devil is in the detail – or rather, the lack of it.

The wide-ranging Contract for the Web, published by Sir Tim’s Web Foundation, is big on principles but leaves open many questions about implementation. When it comes to actually doing something practical about what amounts to a collapse of trust in the internet, there are a few things that companies could address right now to protect their business models. Top of the agenda should be to roll back the tide of digital entrapment.

Just about everybody who has ever turned on a computer knows about digital entrapment – although maybe not by that name. It’s that technique beloved of every kind of online provider, which makes it very easy to sign up for something, but very difficult to put the process in reverse. This is the principle of the lobster pot: a large entrance with a tasty bait inside, but once through the door the exit is very difficult to locate. Yes, in principle the lobster can find its way out of the pot – but tell that to the steaming pink crustacean served up on your plate.

Being boiled alive is the worst-case scenario. Often enough digital entrapment is no worse than a serious junk email problem. Yet every unwanted inbox item increases irritation and distrust, the way an unwanted relationship corrodes. And it is a problem that is surprisingly difficult to solve.

The rules that companies are supposed to follow on unsubscribing from paid subscriptions and online marketing are simple but vague. The UK government guidance on email marketing, for example, is that companies should make it ‘easy’ for consumers to opt out. But how easy is easy?

Recently I tested this by trying to clear all of the unwanted email subscriptions that had accumulated in my inbox – news providers, online stores, wi-fi sign-ins and travel companies: much as I love Cork Airport, I decided that I was already fully updated. Every company I went to did provide the required ‘unsubscribe’ button, albeit in miniscule print and usually in hard-to-read font colours at the bottom of the email. But that is where easy stops.

In some cases the unsubscribe button leads to a simple acknowledgement that you have achieved what the button promises. But these are exceptional cases. In many other cases the unsubscribe button leads to a new page, which leads to another page, and sometimes a third page. Often you are asked to justify unsubscribing. Frequently you have to offer some kind of feedback. Sometimes you are invited not to unsubscribe but to ‘manage your preferences’ – a moment’s inattention here and you end up subscribing to more, not less.

Most egregiously, a few companies won’t let you unsubscribe without entering your email in a dialogue box – despite the fact that you are using that same email account to unsubscribe. Even as you try to stop them harvesting your email, they harvest your email. I found that Uber and The Telegraph were offenders here (and to add insult, The Telegraph also had a slow server that can take minutes to respond).

In all the cases I followed up, only one company (Cork Airport again) actually put the unsubscribe button at the top of the email where it is easily visible. That is one out of almost 50.

Email sign-ups are only the most visible indicator of corporate readiness to take an unwanted degree of control over their customers. Most people will also have experienced online transactions where e-commerce sites seem expressly designed to trick the customer into buying more than intended, or paying over the odds.

Some of the worst offences are sleeper subscriptions – paid services that have been signed up for and then prove just too time consuming or difficult to cancel. These are typically web or TV-based services where sign-up can take moments online or through the television, but where cancellation is much more difficult.

I speak from experience, having just spent a good hour working out how to cancel a subscription to Now TV, a channel that streams Sky content. This is a service where you can buy additional or repeat services through the TV, but you can’t cancel them the same way. You have to go back to the website where you created your account in the distant past, find your password and finally walk through some of those additional screens asking if you are really sure – no, really really sure – that you want to risk being cut off from the exciting world of Sky. And as for the credit reference service that demanded a telephone call to cancel a subscription and then spent half an hour hard selling an upgrade before conceding the case, don’t even get me started.

Estimates of how much sleeper subscriptions are costing consumers vary wildly: one well-founded one from the charity Citizens Advice is that the average quarterly spend on subscriptions we don’t actually want is £160. This year YouGov estimated that the minimum annual cost in the UK is £837 million.

Is it any surprise that trust in the internet has been declining for years? The European Commission has been tracking internet trust since 2006, and in most European countries it has been falling markedly. In 2006 around 63% of people in the UK said they tended to trust the internet. By the end of last year that had fallen to 40%. France and Germany have seen comparable declines.

That is a very significant fall. It is widely accepted that trust in institutions and professions has been falling, according to survey data. But the internet is more than one institution – it is the mediator of many if not most of our transactions and interactions. Fake news and malign ideologies may be contributors to growing distrust, but so are well-known, established companies. As they undermine trust, they undermine their own businesses.

Government recognises the problem, but not the solution. In 2017 the then Chancellor Philip Hammond promised legislation to make unsubscribing easier, but then someone pressed the unsubscribe button on Mr Hammond and nothing more was heard.

Yet the remedy is to hand. The internet bill of rights should have one very simple clause, which is that when it comes to signing up for anything online, including repeat subscriptions, you can leave exactly the same way you came in. If it is one click in, then it should be one click out. Would that be so very difficult?

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Richard Walker is a journalist and communications adviser to financial companies.