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:
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:
- to aid companies in increasing customer satisfaction and confidence in doing business on
- to assist in establishing merchant credibility and trustworthiness;
- to help merchants provide a better online customer experience, innovate rapidly, and
lower their costs;
- to support and enhance self-regulation of Internet commerce;
- and to help merchants and customers deal with the proliferation of guidelines and
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
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
You've got six weeks left to make yourself heard. Regulate thyself, or someone else
Tracey S. Roth welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.