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Tracey S. Roth Dot Com Commerce

Assistant Editor, [email protected] CENTER Solutions

[July 28, 1999]

E-Commerce Regulation: Making Order Out Of Chaos

For the most part, the online community has demonstrated a "Hands off the Web!" attitude toward regulation, particularly Federal, of the Internet. Some of the arguments put forward in favor of regulation are straightforward: Making sure little Johnny can't access www.WomenWithNoClothesOn.com when he's supposed to be doing research on the capital of Bolivia, for example. Other issues that lie under these hotly debated flagship crusades are far subtler.

The U.S. Government has so far demonstrated very little willingness or real ability to regulate electronic commerce to any great extent. The legal implications with that particular can of worms are just too large for anyone to want to open. This has sent a clear message to a lot of businesses that conduct commerce and service over the Internet: Regulate thyself.

Most corporations, particularly those that have been operating for a long time in the stodgy and predictable brick-and-mortar environment, become rather twitchy when expected to operate in such an unregulated atmosphere. Entities that spend a great deal of time and energy defining corporate missions, short- and long-term goals, market positioning, and administrative rules will be naturally reluctant to put any part of their businesses into an entity with such an unpredictable legal environment. But on the other side of the coin for these companies is the prospect of being the only person left standing on the shore when everyone else has braved the cold water and is enjoying the swim.

We don't like authority and regulation in this country to get in our way when we're sure of our processes. But we do like it to be there when we need it.

A U.S. Government document exists called "A Framework For Global Electronic Commerce," but its number one recommendation is "The private sector should lead." Number two is "Governments should avoid undue restrictions on electronic commerce." The number of times the word "should" appears helps clue the reader in that this document is very far away from being a set of direct, comprehensive regulations. Most American corporations reading this document for the first time probably thought, "Thanks…that helps a lot. Now what?"

The private sector has attempted to take the government's first rule seriously. The Standard For Internet Commerce is a set of practices for Internet commerce currently being developed by Ziff-Davis with the additional input of an alliance of 200 Internet merchants, IT vendors, analysts, policymakers, consumer advocates, journalists, and academics. The intent was to codify a set of "best practices" for e-commerce, focusing on merchant practices and policies that will provide better customer service to online customers. The mission of the Standard is five-fold:

  1. to aid companies in increasing customer satisfaction and confidence in doing business on the Internet;
  2. to assist in establishing merchant credibility and trustworthiness;
  3. to help merchants provide a better online customer experience, innovate rapidly, and lower their costs;
  4. to support and enhance self-regulation of Internet commerce;
  5. and to help merchants and customers deal with the proliferation of guidelines and symbols.

The first draft of the document is available for viewing now. The guts of the document cover a predictable range of topics that should be addressed by Web merchants on their sites: informing shoppers about the merchant's pertinent company information, product availability, information integrity, warranty information, product support, search capabilities, privacy and security, payment and billing, order notification and status, shipping, order cancellation and returns, and help and customer support. Basic concepts, but practices that are surprisingly lacking on the sites of many Web merchants today. Companies that choose to embrace these standards in their policies will have the option of posting an indication of their adherence on their sites…a sort of Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for the new millennium.

The names of the 200 or so consultants appear on the Web site, and these individuals' affiliations are numerous and impressive (though I was struck by the relatively low number of companies that actually sell off their Web sites). Additionally, one of the primary goals of the Standards as described in its charter is to help companies engaging in e-commerce improve customer service and satisfaction, though the recommendations do not touch directly on how to better service customers when it comes down to actual agent/customer communication. You may have the best Web site in the known universe, but if I can't get an informed agent to help me with a problem promptly, your site is of little use to me.

Still, the project was gargantuan and the document is by and large comprehensive and sensible. In the climate of e-commerce -- where the customer can access your competition in one mouse click -- having sound, customer-oriented policies is a must. Applying ordinary common sense doesn't work for everyone -- I personally have been on some e-commerce sites that seemed like they were put together by 10-year olds.

The initial release of The Commerce Standard is slated for December, 1999 and will be available at no cost. It is expected to be updated once a year as e-commerce technology and issues of concern continue to evolve. The document is available for public comment and voting until September 13th.

You've got six weeks left to make yourself heard. Regulate thyself, or someone else will.

Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at troth@tmcnet.com.

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