Sunday, November 28, 2010

Empowerment Doesn't Mean Safety

A story published by the New York Times tells the disturbing story of a business so unscrupulous that its owner views threats and abuse of customers as a revenue-generating tool. A comment about the story on Twitter prompted me to do some thinking about the Internet and what it does and does not do for consumers.

  • The Internet empowers shoppers
    • Check competitors' prices right from the store
    • Check online reviews of both product and seller
    • Find rebates or discounts the salesperson may not even know about
  • The Internet empowers businesses
    • Watch what your competition is doing
    • Listen to what your customers are saying
    • "Level the playing field" so small business can play big
So, what went wrong in the Times story? Shouldn't the Internet have protected the victim of the abuse? Short answer: Empowerment is not safety. Having tools only works if you use the tools provided to you. The Internet does not countermand the wise saying caveat emptor (buyer beware), but allows the buyer to access information on a scale unimaginable a generation ago. But the customer in the New York Times story did not use the tools. Now, don't get me wrong--there is absolutely no excuse for the greed-driven horror which a despicable person thinks of as "business." It was absolutely not the victim's fault that she was treated badly.  According to the story, however, she took a top Google ranking as a testimonial and never looked beyond it. This is the same as taking one salesperson's word for it when making a purchase—unless the salesperson is known and trusted.

Does the Internet empower? Yes, beyond a doubt. Does empowerment mean that you are protected from harm? No. It means that you have been given power. Whether you use that power or not is up to you.

Give it some thought.

Update: 12/1/2010

Google has implemented what they term "an algorithmic solution" to this problem. You can read the story on TechCrunch. Thanks to Jeffrey J. Kingman for bringing this to my attention.

Update 12/6/2010
The owner of the business described in the New York Times article linked at the beginning of this post has been arrested and charged with fraud and threatening, according to internet Retailer. Thanks to "hestika" @AngelosTzelepis on Twitter for the update.