The next billion: How to best serve the Internet’s new users

To a large degree, technology companies can do more than the law to make online transactions transparent

One billion. That’s how many new people are expected to start using the Internet in the course of 2016. With the vast majority of the residents of developed nations already online, the bulk of that huge growth (a 33% increase from the estimated 3 billion users currently on the Web worldwide) will be in developing nations. This will bring the need for consumer protections into sharper focus.

Fraud is a large concern, but other issues, such as the need for transparency in matters such as online transactions, are also inadequately addressed by policy in many countries. And to a large degree, government regulation is not enough on its own, particularly because it is often reactive and domestic in application — any protections enacted by one government stop at the border.

Government policies can also be inconstant. Take Taiwan’s Consumer Protection Act as an example. Previously, it allowed consumers to return merchandise such as smartphone apps within a certain time frame. But recent amendments removed the requirement for trial periods and dissolved the return structure, changes that complicate the state’s protection against online fraud and inhibit users’ ability to resolve errors.

To a certain extent, technology vendors are better situated to reduce fraud and abuse in the online world, and there is reason to believe that some of them find it good business to promote greater transparency.

Some of Silicon Valley’s largest technology companies threw their support behind the recently signed California Electronic Communication Privacy Act (CalECPA), considered by many to be the most forward-thinking privacy law in the U.S. The legislation, of course, applies to just one U.S. state, but it is reasonable to expect the tech giants to show similar commitment to privacy protection wherever such laws are being debated.

Companies can also make changes in their own technology to further consumer protection. With Marshmallow, the latest Android OS update, Google offers control over some app permissions. Previously, all permissions were bundled into a single prompt displayed during purchase, and acceptance of permissions was compulsory.

It will take more, however, to combat outright fraud around the world. Fraud can be a particular problem in countries that combine lax laws with rampant corruption — a mix not at all unusual in developing nations. In Kenya, users of mobile banking services experience fraud at nearly four times the rate of the general population. Every week in Uganda, approximately 100 mobile money users lose money due to fraud. Mobile fraud is a problem in many Asian nations as well. In one widespread scam, criminals use a popular chat program to pose as senior executives of a company and ask staff members of that company to wire funds for urgent business.

The companies that stand to gain most from the next billion need to be involved in getting more countries to institute protection against these types of schemes. Insights gained from successful policies applied around the world should be leveraged to protect current and future users.

Consumer protection is an important element for any business, manifesting itself in a variety of ways. New challenges are sure to arise as the next billion comes online. It is clear that many companies are preparing for these new users by transforming products to meet customer needs. It will be interesting to see how the process unfolds and, more importantly, how users interact with the companies that gain the most traction during this transition process.

Elgin Tucker Jr. is a professor in the ethnic studies program at San Francisco State University.

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