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In a world where every computer is connected to every computer a lot of things are possible. Some of them are not pretty. Trust will become critical. Brands will become more important than ever because they will signal to us what level of trust we can expect. How will we know whether we can really trust a web site? Trust goes hand in hand with good security and privacy. Offering good security and a solid privacy policy will be the bare minimum but we will also follow how an e-business acts over time. What is their commitment? Do they listen to their constituencies? Do they respond to concerns about privacy and make things better? These actions will separate the good guys and the bad guys.

Brand used to be a feeling conjured up by how a company’s product was physically packaged or how consumers imagined themselves using it. Increasingly brand is a feeling conjured up by a person’s experience on that company’s web site. It ties directly to Trust. Companies that have a web site that provides an end-to-end positive experience and which enhances people’s quality of life by saving them time will gain enhanced brand equity. The converse will become obvious.

Privacy, confidence, and trust all go together

In a December 2000 speech in New York , Lou Gerstner, chairman of IBM Corporation said, “We know that trust is a fundamental element of every positive brand experience. It is fundamental to all consumer behavior, to the willingness to buy and to brand loyalty. All of it is based on trust.” Web sites already have a repository of huge amounts of personal data that represent the byproduct of not just our registrations but also our surfing habits and our purchases. In the near future our medical records will be on a web site somewhere and beyond that will come real time data streamed from pacemakers and other medical instruments that are attached to our bodies. All of this data can bring significant benefits to us but only if we are able to trust the holders of the data and have confidence that they will protect it and respect our preferences about how and when the data can be used. Lou Gerstner summarized it well when he said, “The answer here must begin with a responsible marketplace. Through our policies and our practices, industry has to send an unambiguous message that tells people: ‘You can trust us. You have choices. They will be respected. And you’ll know in advance how any information that you give us will be used.'”

The bottom line is that it should be up to each of us to “opt in”. E-businesses should declare their privacy policies and describe to us exactly what information they collect, how they collect it, and what they do with it. They should also get our permission before they release any information to a third party. Most web sites now have privacy policies. Most, but not all of them, have good privacy policies. Even those who have good policies may have difficulty in living up those policies. Having an efficient and effective framework for privacy is an emerging technical challenge. More on that to come in subsequent parts of this series.

The cookie monster

When you click on a link to a web page, a request is made to retrieve a document from a server and the server sends the document to your browser. If you then come right back to that server for another document it is an independent request – the server has no knowledge that it was you that had just requested the document. This is fine for surfing but for e-business there are numerous reasons why the server does need to know that you were the one that had just made the request. Some of the early web pioneers had realized the need to be able to retain information about who had made requests of the server and they also saw the need to maintain the “state” of things going on at the server so that if there were multiple steps to an e-business process or if a user became disconnected from the Internet, they would be able to return to the site and pick up where they left off. The technical invention to make this possible was called the “cookie”.

When you visit a site the server sends a cookie to your PC. The cookie is a small data file that can contain information about you and the transaction you are participating in. When you come back that second time the server reads the cookie, looks up some data about you in a database if needed and then allows you to continue. The cookie was a great idea and most web sites use them. In fact, cookies have facilitated e-business. However, in some cases the use of cookies has become an invasion of our privacy – a tool to be able to track our every mouse click. Cookies have been used by some companies to analyze your web visits and then target advertising at you based on what sites you have recently visited. Some people like this and others find it a large invasion of their privacy.