November 1, 2002

“Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket” said George Orwell. But when the stick is taken from the bucket and chases you wherever you go it is much more disturbing.

I find myself suffering from the slings and arrows of the Web marketeers on a daily basis. It is bad enough to get constant ‘opportunities’ to refinance or to buy goods in which I have no interest – I can live with that – but when the entreaties include recurring suggestions that I might benefit from viagra or highly personal extensions I begin to become irritated. If it were possible to reduce this stream we would all benefit hugely. (I really must get my wife to stop forwarding the viagra and extension e-mails.)

A number of the articles in this issue and on the Web site address problems arising from the e-commerce regulations and relating to e-ads (see pp12, 14 and 22 and three Web articles). All this, especially the dreaded sky hooks, has turned my attention to this issue, and to a rather depressing conclusion.

While we are all likely to be generally supportive of calls for regulation of such things as online pharmaceutical sales (see p22), we have to accept certain realities. For example, there have been in place for many years strict regulations affecting the sale of pharmaceuticals. The need to regulate such sales is almost universally acknowledged. But we continue to receive requests to trade with online pharmaceutical dealers who, as Ben Coppin shows, breach many basic regulatory requirements. This is not a scandal which has recently arisen, it has been going on for years. My depression arises from the realisation that here is an issue where all concerned agree that there is a problem, where most agree that something should be done about it, and where it takes only a minority to pretend to be doing something about it for trade to continue to flourish. If this is true for online pharmaceuticals, how much more certain is it that there will continue to be an enforcement problem where there is no universal acceptance of the need for action? Pornography is one example – for there is a considerable lobby which believes that there should be no censorship and which can justify providing a trading centre for even the most appalling pornography on the basis of liberal ideals. But, where the problem is, let us be frank, merely an irritant such as the level of marketing spam then we can be sure that there will be no universal acceptance of the problem, there will be no communal imposition of restrictions, and (even if there were restrictions) there would be numerous examples of lax enforcement across the world.

So, are the EC and our own regulators merely spitting into the wind? Or, worse than that, will they impose obligations on organisations within their jurisdiction which will put them at a trading disadvantage on price? I wish I was convinced that that disadvantage could be readily overcome by virtue of us all making the choice to deal only with the more principled of Web traders, but I am not. The most readily distinguishable characteristic of any product for sale on the Web is its price. It is rarely possible to be sure about the quality of the product, even where there are assurances (eg arising from a brand name) as one cannot be sure that these are genuine. Price is real. The recent history of the development of sales of major items suggest that those who attract on the basis of price, most notably Amazon and the low-fare airlines, will do well but that those who differentiate on novelty or on the basis of the quality of their product may struggle.

So should we give up on regulation? That’s not a political possibility. I would like to see the focus shift, and see the technical and practical burden fall on those who have capacity to intimidate the senders of invitations to refinance one’s pornographic viagra. The people with the greatest influence are the ISPs and the credit card companies for without their say-so the companies who provide the various products sold on the Internet would collapse.

That form of responsibility needs to be applied on a global basis and, in particular, on the various ISPs and credit card companies based in the USA. That will make a difference. They could even impose a requirement that they will only trade with people who ensure that the products which they sell are marketed in a responsible fashion in accordance with the regulations which apply in the jurisdictions in question. Then the legislators might actually have the control to which they are entitled.