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Trust and privacy in cyberspace : a view from an Asian vantage point
By Rohan Samarajiva

Much of the discussion of the Information Society, and in particular electronic commerce, assumes near universal connectivity to telecommunications networks. This is true for developed market economies but is generally not true for countries of the South. As a result, firms and individuals from the developed market economies will populate much of the virtual spaces within which electronic commerce and other cyberspace interactions will take place. In addition, these actors have had decades of experience with technologically mediated non-proximate communication and have relatively well developed legal and ethical frameworks that can serve as foundations for dealing with cyberspace issues. Actors based in countries of the South do not have this base. In most cases, they are experiencing very rapid growth in basic telephony and the introduction of multiple new communication technologies such as mobile telephony and the Internet simultaneously. The combination of these factors makes the task of influencing the development of ethical and legal frameworks for cyberspace a challenge for actors based in the South.

Over the past few years, the cyberspace discussion has been reframed in terms of electronic commerce signifying the importance of transactions (defined as interactions that involve exchanges of value) and relationships (defined as iterated interactions or transactions between the same parties). Electronic commerce throws into sharp focus problems of trust and privacy. If a secure environment characterized by trust can be established for the conduct of transactions, one may assume that interactions and relationships will be looked after as well. This presentation focuses on electronic commerce for this reason.

Electronic commerce, and the wider concept of cyberspace, do not map one-on-one with the geographical spaces of countries or regions, such as my country of Sri Lanka. A Sri Lankan may conduct electronic commerce with another Sri Lankan in Sri Lanka. But this would be the exception. In most cases, the transactions will occur between Sri Lankans and those located outside that national territory. The question of which cultural mores and ethical and legal frameworks apply to these transactions does not have a clear-cut answer. While I would not go as far as to claim that only the mores of cyberspace apply, it is also not possible to directly apply concepts and frameworks from geographically defined spaces.

A preliminary definition of the key concepts of trust and privacy is necessary. Trust is defined, following Giddens, as "confidence in the reliability of a person or a system, regarding a given set of outcomes or events, where that confidence expresses faith in the probity or love of another, or in the correctness of abstract principles (technical knowledge)." The primary condition that creates a need for trust is lack of full information, generally associated with a person who is separated in time and space or a system whose workings are not fully known. Lacking complete information about a system, a user has to develop a trust-related attitude toward it. This can range from complete trust through mistrust to angst. Dealing with any commercial organization necessarily requires a trust-related attitude. When transactions with such complex systems are mediated by a technological system such as an electronic commerce platform, the importance of trust is heightened. Trust is dynamically generated and has to be worked on. In interpersonal relationships, one party’s actions, particularly self-disclosure or lack thereof, can reinforce, diminish, or destroy the other party’s trust. With care, this claim can be extended to commercial relationships. Trust building behavior on the part of a commercial organization would include absence of coercion in making and receiving disclosures and a degree of self-disclosure.

The above understanding of trust overlaps with a definition of privacy derived from research on everyday social practice—"the capability to explicitly or implicitly negotiate the boundary conditions of social relations." The definition includes control of outflow of information that may be of strategic or aesthetic value to the person and control of inflow of information, including initiation of contact. Privacy is a precondition for trust. Trust affects privacy. A user’s trust in the information practices of a system is likely to make possible consensual surveillance, which can enhance trust. The resultant spiral will lead to stable and productive customer relationships. Where low trust leads to coercive surveillance, the opposite spiral leading to mistrust and angst is likely to result.

The above definitions of trust and privacy are abstract. They take different forms in different situations including cultures. As Fukuyama has discussed in a broader context, trust varies across situations and cultures. What this short comment seeks to do is to identify the key factors that must be taken into account in developing ethical and legal frameworks for effective electronic commerce outside the developed market economies, drawing primarily on the case of Sri Lanka.

Low Connectivity

In most countries of the South, basic telecommunication connectivity is still a distant goal, leave alone the advanced Internet infrastructure that provides the basis for electronic commerce. Electronic transactions between companies and organizations, particularly those involved in worldwide commercial relationships, do take place within the context of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI). However, these closed user systems do not fall within the commonly understood meaning of electronic commerce that involves transactions with consumers in an open system such as the Internet. The availability of telecommunication connectivity from home, office, or personal device is the precondition for electronic commerce. In addition, a computer and modem (or equivalent) plus a subscription to a service provider are required. These preconditions do not exist for all but a small number of individuals and organizations. The situation in Sri Lanka is illustrative.

In Sri Lanka, less than 10% of households are equipped with telephones and teledensity (calculated only for fixed-access lines) has just gone over 2 in the past year. Even with the current extraordinary growth rates for fixed-access telephones that were over 30% last year and may be as high as 40% for the current year, it is unlikely that universal connectivity in the form of telecommunications access from every home will be achieved in the near future. Domestic tariffs being driven up by the loss of international subsidies are likely to stall network expansion unless the country experiences sharply improved economic growth, most likely associated with the end of the war with the LTTE terror organization.

In the near-term, electronic commerce in countries such as Sri Lanka will take two forms: elite individuals and firms with the wherewithal for electronic commerce will purchase goods and services through electronic commerce, primarily from off-shore suppliers; vendors in Sri Lanka who establish electronic commerce sites will engage in transactions with off-shore individuals and firms. This will be in addition to the closed electronic commerce systems that will involve local firms participating in multinational production and trading relationships. Given the asymmetry between the Sri Lankan and off-shore participants (e.g., a Sri Lankan reader buying books from Amazon.Com; a Sri Lankan Bed & Breakfast operator accepting reservations from European tourists), it is unlikely that there will be a specific Sri Lankan component in the design of the commerce sites or the practices that will be developed around them. The book purchaser will follow the general practices of Amazon.Com; the B&B operator will adapt to the needs of her clients. In the same way that many American cultural practices form the basis of the current Internet culture simply because a majority of the early Internet users were Americans, it is likely that the mores and frameworks of the developed countries will pervade the emerging virtual marketplace.


Lack of Experience

Individuals and organizations in developed market economies have had decades to get accustomed to interactions in the "virtual space" of the public telephone network. The basic ethical and legal frameworks have been established for telephone-based interactions; though some of the newer uses of the network such as credit card based purchases, audiotex, and the use of calling-line identification have required attention. The remedies to the problems posed by these new applications draw on the frameworks developed for basic services over the past decades. In the same way, the more complex challenges posed by Internet based applications draw on past experience.

In common with most less-developed countries, Sri Lanka has relatively short experience with widespread everyday use of technologies for non-proximate communication. The telephone was introduced to Sri Lanka in the late Nineteenth Century, within a few years of its invention, but it took 106 years to connect the first 100,000 telephone lines, in contrast with the third and fourth 100,000 lines that were connected in months. The slow growth in the early years and the explosive growth in recent years mean that most telecommunication users are "newbies." Users have little experience with interaction in the virtual spaces created by the different telecommunication networks.

The overall environment of a society has an impact on how its members approach electronic commerce. Fukuyama talks of high and low-trust societies and generally correlates low-trust societies will low-growth societies. While there are problems with parts of his analysis, in general it is correct to state that commercial transactions in relatively poor countries such as Sri Lanka are not marked by high degrees of trust. While trust exists in family and similar settings, it is low in organizational and commercial settings.

Trust allows transactions to take place with lower transaction costs because the parties allow consensual surveillance or proceed with less information. When the starting point is low trust, there is a much greater likelihood that the technological system through which the transactions occur will be designed to coercively extract information, which if known to the other party, leads to mistrust, which in turn could lead to greater reliance on actions hostile to trust-building in countries such as Sri Lanka. This vicious downward spiral is not counteracted by the experience of users in effectively functioning in virtual environments such as telephone networks.

Trust in the system provider could facilitate the friction-laden relations between consumers and vendors. Usually, a telecommunication provider such an Internet service provider or a telecommunication operator, broadly defined, provides the platform for electronic commerce. In the US, studies have shown that telephone companies are among the most trusted institutions in society (this trust has been rapidly declining in the past two decades). But telecommunications providers in most of Asia that were until recently or are still unregulated, inefficient, government-owned monopolies are unlikely to have that legacy. Because of poor service, corruption and related factors, they may be among the least trusted institutions in these societies. Whether the many new entrants to the telecommunications field will be capable of building up trust is to be seen.

Privacy Attitudes

It is not commonly accepted what measurable privacy attitudes are. However, attitudes to a key item of access information, the home telephone number, may be used as a proxy for the present purposes. The attitude to disclosure of home telephone numbers in the US has changed over the years. Despite it being common practice to penalize those who wish to keep their names and numbers off directories by charging extra fees, as much as 50% of subscribers in states such as California and Nevada have unlisted numbers. In all parts of the US the proportion of unlisted numbers is increasing. This is perhaps driven by the use of the telephone for direct marketing, polling, and similar activities that disrupt home life.

In Sri Lanka, and perhaps in other Asian countries of similar status, the attitude toward disclosure of telephone numbers is quite different from contemporary US attitudes. Perhaps as a result of thinking of the telephone as a status symbol (which was justified at a time when one had to wait 10 years and/or exercise much political or other influence to get a phone), it is common to include home telephone numbers in business cards and even under the business entries in the telephone directory. The absence of direct marketers and polling firms may also contribute to this attitude.

It is possible that this tendency to disclose personal information is not a characteristic of a particular culture, but is a feature of a network in the early stages of formation. As connectivity increases, the members of the network may understand the value of controlling access. As long as the network is relatively isolated, as was the case with national telecommunication networks until recently because of high international calling charges, this "natural" evolution has an element of symmetry built into it. But in the present situation where "between-network" communication is increasing very rapidly, the members from the low-penetration networks may tend to exercise less control over their personal information while those from the mature networks will guard their privacy. This asymmetry may have to be addressed in designing ethical and legal frameworks.

There is one qualification to the above argument. It is possible that economic factors can powerfully override the above-discussed forces shaping privacy attitudes. In Sri Lanka, cellular operators charge most customers for incoming calls. As a result, the attitude toward disclosure of cellular numbers is diametrically opposed to the attitude regarding fixed-access numbers. Generally, these numbers are not given out freely and there is no demand for a cellular telephone directory even though a significant number of subscribers are using the cellular phone as a substitute and not as a complement to fixed-access service. It may be worthwhile to consider economic incentives in designing ethical and legal frameworks for electronic commerce.


Concluding Comments

An Asian or Sri Lankan perspective on cyberspace developments is inherently contradictory because cyberspace does not map with geographical spaces. However, it is true that human beings and organizations that interact in cyberspace are still located in physical spaces, still have a majority of interactions in, and are subject to the laws and culture of, those spaces. Hopefully, the above exploration of the contradiction yielded some new insights.

The cultural mores and ethical and legal frameworks emerging in cyberspace will be disproportionately influenced by actors based in the developed market economies, though not necessarily by national cultures. Language and other factors that may function as cultural screens need further examination. Actors based in the rich countries will also bring with them a heritage of experience of interacting in non-proximate settings unlike those from the South who have gained access to telecommunication networks only recently. In the end, the key difference will be between those who are wired into the networks and those who are not, whatever be their geographical location.


  Rohan Samarajiva is Director-General of Telecommunications at the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission of Sri Lanka

Texts published in 'Points of View' may not reflect UNESCO's position.

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