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Security and trust: The backbone of doing business over the internet

In a most appalling display of commercial evangelism, US President Bill Clinton addressed his people last weekend with a Thanksgiving message devoted entirely to extolling the sacred blessings of consumerism and to sharing tips for indulging this national obsession via the Web. His opening blurb was startling, fairly associating the Thanksgiving spirit with the business of making purchases: "On this holiday weekend, when we count our many blessings, Americans are also busy buying gifts for the next holidays, right around the corner," he said. We were hoping he might possess the dignity to leave it there, or at least pretend to have the dignity to leave it there, but we were disappointed. "On Thanksgiving... my family and I gave thanks for the enormous prosperity America is carrying forward into the 21st Century," the Gigolo-in-Chief warbled. We listened in hopeful expectation of some jaunty acknowledgment of excess, some self-deprecating reference to getting carried away, but he had only just hit his stride. The fatuities dribbled from his lips, and no doubt with the taut-lipped android smile of some brainwashed talk-show domestic tips cheerleader along the lines of Martha Stewart. "About four million American families will buy some of their gifts on-line for the first time this holiday season," the President drawled. "I intend to join them, because on-line shopping has significant benefits not just for consumers and large established retailers. On-line commerce also opens a world of opportunity for local artisans and small entrepreneurs." Ah, but there are risks on the Net, and His Smarminess was ready with a few special pointers: "First, in the on-line world, you must pay close attention to details. Carefully check for shipping and delivery dates, for extra fees, warranties, return policies, and phone numbers to call if you run into a problem." Sage advice to be sure. We look forward to his Christmas message, perhaps revealing his favourite tart crust recipe and quilting tips. And there was more: "Second, always buy with a credit card. With credit cards you are protected by federal law against unauthorised charges," the President of the United States advised. And on he went: "Third, guard your privacy at all times. Look for the unbroken key or padlock symbols on the order page to ensure that your credit care information will be transmitted securely. Don't share passwords with anyone, and be sure to read the merchant's privacy policy to see what information is being collected about you and how it will be used." He even consecrated a new national objective. Roosevelt had the New Deal (and contributing to the defence of decent human civilisation against vicious assaults by Germany and Japan); Kennedy had the Peace Corps; and Johnson the War on Poverty and the Civil Rights Act. Clinton would not be outdone. He offered to posterity the Online Shopping Spree. "We all must work together to make sure that shopping on-line is just as safe as shopping in a mall," the leader of the world's most powerful nation urged his people. This, then, was the President's Thanksgiving address: another opportunity squandered to reach a commercially debauched nation with the grossest of the world's gross national products in some meaningful human context -- something like gratitude or empathy, perhaps, as humility would of course be asking too much. But instead, a race blithely poisoning its cardiovascular systems with the most plentiful and cheapest groceries on Earth gorged itself during a day when thirty thousand black, brown and yellow children in remote quarters died of malnutrition, neglect and preventable disease, while the President chirped inanely about some fatuous point-and-drool scheme to stimulate the sale of tasteless consumer rubbish via personal computers. Surely, if he possessed the ability to reason morally he would have hanged himself in shame for that and perhaps fifty other grotesque public performances. We listened, and we confess it: we did laugh, all right; but we did so because if we hadn't, we should have cried instead. ®

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