Solutions for Digital Annoyances

Digital risks and annoyances are unfortunate by-products of the networked world we live in. Companies can't keep our private information private. Too many businesses seem more interested in vacuuming dollars out of our pockets than in delivering a great consumer experience. And lawmakers seem unaware of the intricacies of the technology they are charged with governing.

For now, we can only hope that companies and institutions will wise up soon and do a better job. Until that time comes, though, I offer for your consideration a few (somewhat) snarky solutions to nagging problems with today's digital world.

A Better Way to Deal With Privacy Breaches

Last December, retailer TJX--which owns T.J. Maxx, Marshalls, A.J. Wright, and HomeGoods--discovered an unauthorized intrusion into its computer system. An unspecified number of customer debit card numbers, together with the cards' expiration dates, were stolen from the computer system.

That's bad, but it gets worse: According to news accounts, the company waited until mid-January to tell its customers that they might be at risk. TJX says that it delayed telling its customers, not (as I suspect) to avoid hurting holiday sales, but in order to notify law enforcement first.

I'd have more sympathy for the company if it had notified its customers sooner. One unlucky TJX customer reported a total of $6700 in unauthorized transactions made on his credit card on January 3 at Wal-Mart, Flowers.com, and iTunes.com.

Wouldn't you expect companies to have learned their lesson and begun taking the necessary steps to protect customer data better? Unfortunately, I don't think they have. Check out "A Chronology of Data Breaches," posted at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse's site. It puts the total number of records containing sensitive personal information that have been involved in security breaches since January 10, 2005, at 104 million.

Here's my solution: Every time a company accidentally reveals its customers' private information or credit card numbers, it has to post on the company's Web site the name and social security number of one company executive responsible for losing the personal information. It seems only fair.

Rebates Made Relative

These days, the bigger the rebate, the smaller the fine print seems to get--and the more difficult it becomes for consumers to take advantage of it. Though companies are starting to realize that hard-to-redeem rebates annoy their customers, most rebates remain a royal pain.

My fix: Companies would have to take an inverse approach to rebates--the bigger the rebate, the easier it the business would have to make it for buyers to take advantage of it.

Ignorance Can Be Costly

People who make laws that affect technology or that attempt to discourage some type of tech-related crime really ought to understand the technology first.

I got a big chuckle last year when The Daily Show With Jon Stewart mocked Senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) for calling the Internet a "series of tubes" in a speech about Internet neutrality.

Evidently, Senator Stevens, who then chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, didn't have a firm understanding of what the Internet was. It's not so funny, however, when you recall that this committee plays an important role in shaping the future of the Internet.

Also not so funny is a story that my colleague Steve Bass has been following, about Julie Amero, a schoolteacher who could face up to 40 years in prison because PCs in her classroom were infested with pop-up porn adware. The government officials prosecuting her and the jury that decides her fate should know more about technology and the Internet.

So here's my solution to this problem: Lawmakers and law enforcers must take a remedial class in the basics of technology and the Internet.

No More Class-Action Profiteering by Lawyers

Too often, most of the money paid out in class-action settlements goes directly into the coffers of the attorneys involved in the case. And sometimes the companies being sued benefit--albeit indirectly.

I recognize that lawyers need an incentive to take a case and that big fines against accused companies do act as effective deterrents against future misconduct.

But my "come on!" meter shoots to ten when I hear about situations like the one involving Netflix. In 2005, the company paid a $2.5 million settlement in a class-action suit filed in connection with alleged misleading advertising. Consumers complained that Netflix's claim to offer "unlimited rentals" was fundamentally inaccurate. They pointed out that DVD rentals were often delayed by postal holidays as well as by delays at Netflix in processing DVD rentals. Though it never admitted guilt, Netflix agreed to pay millions of dollars to settle the case.

But all of that money went to the lawyers--not a dime went to consumers. All that the consumers received was a coupon for one free month of an upgraded service. Wow, now Netflix customers can put A Civil Action in their Netflix queue for free and hope there is no long wait for the DVD to arrive.

The Federal Trade Commission weighed in on the matter, stating: "the settlement would serve more as a promotional vehicle for Netflix, than a means of providing redress to consumers."

Here's my solution: All class-action settlements must monetarily benefit the consumers allegedly injured by the companies being sued.

Curing the Cancel Annoyance

In a recent story, I wrote about how difficult it was in some cases to cancel monthly services that I had signed up for. My attempts to cancel more than 30 services nearly sucked the life out of me. It was hell.

My solution for avoiding such hassles is simple: Require companies to make signing up for their service just as difficult as canceling it is. After all, if it's impossible to sign up for a monthly service, I'll never have to worry about unsubscribing from it.

You Can't Sue YouTube, Until...

Viacom is suing Google's YouTube for more than $1 billion for copyright infringement because people post Viacom-owned content to the YouTube Web site.

You can't dismiss all of Viacom's concerns out of hand. Who wouldn't be annoyed if more people turned to YouTube to view your content than to your own Web site? I have reason to suspect that this is the case with Viacom and YouTube.

But I'm not loyal to YouTube because it has Viacom content. I'm loyal to YouTube because it's a great site: It offers (sometimes) compelling content in an uncluttered environment that's simple to navigate, so I can easily find what I want. The same can't be said for all of Viacom's Web sites.

I went over to Comedy Central's site to browse clips of The Daily Show and got hit with a pop-up asking me to update my "Windows Media Player Extension" software. It took me several clicks to get to The Daily Show home--and the site was packed with ads. Each video I selected included video commercials, too. And because the site lacked community tools, I had trouble finding popular videos versus the ones Viacom assumed I wanted to watch.

A company like Viacom needs to address the underlying reasons why people are turning to alternative sources (like YouTube) to enjoy its content before suing those sources. Viacom is likely spending a tidy sum on its YouTube lawsuit. That money would be better invested in making its own site easier to navigate, clutter-free, and less like a NASCAR racer plastered with Comedy Central ads and commercial hooks.

The music industry is slowly learning the lesson of frictionless consumer access to its content via services like iTunes.

My solution to the YouTube controversy: Viacom and other sue-first-and-address-the-problem-later companies should change their priorities to spend more on the user experience and less on lawsuits.

My solutions to these digital dilemmas may be impractical, but I do think if we can tackle these underlying issues, all of us will be better off.

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