Our Digital Illiteracy

Pew Research Center recently surveyed 4,272 adults and tested their knowledge of basic computer topics. The results showed that there was a lack of general knowledge about a few of the terms that are important for how people use the Internet.

For example, the survey showed that only 30% of survey takers knew that website starting with https:// means that the information provided over that site is encrypted.

Only 28% of respondents understood the concept of two-factor authentication – something that Google and Microsoft say can eliminate nearly 100% of hacking of a connection.

Only 24% understood the purpose of private browsing.

The respondents fared better on a few topics. For example, two-thirds of respondents understood the danger of phishing, but it’s a bit scary that one out of three users didn’t. 63% understand that cookies allow websites to track user visits and other activities on web sites.

48% of respondents understood the concept of net neutrality – the technology topic that has gotten the most press over the last four years.

A few of the questions were a bit smug. Only 15% of people could identify a picture of Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter. I have to admit that this is a question I would also have failed because I don’t much care about the personalities of the people behind web companies – even though I follow the issues involving these companies closely.

It’s probably not surprising that younger users did better on the survey question than older users. It’s still a bit shocking, though that only 1% of survey takers got every question right.

The bottom line of this survey is that the general public probably has a much lower knowledge of the Internet that many web companies and ISPs assume. I think this survey highlights an opportunity for small ISPs to educate customers by passing on safety tips or important knowledge about the web.

ISPs communicate with users on log-in pages, when billing and on their web site. It wouldn’t be hard to add some recurring messages such as. “Did you know that web sites that start with https use an encrypted connection with users and provide for a safer connection?” Experienced web users will blow past such messages, but we know that repeating messages eventually make an impression on most people.

It’s easy for technical folks to assume that the public understands basic concepts about the web – but surveys like this one remind us that’s necessarily true.

Is it Too Late to Save the Web?

Advocates of net neutrality say that we need to take a stand to protect the open web, and for those that have been using the web since its early days that sounds like a noble goal. But when I look at the trends, the statistics, and the news about the web, I have to wonder if it’s too late to save the web as we’ve known it.

The web was originally going to be a repository of human knowledge and people originally took the time to post all sorts of amazing content on the web. But nobody does that very much anymore and over time those old interesting web sites are dying. Mozilla says that people no longer web search much and that 60% of all non-video web traffic goes to a small handful of giant web companies like Facebook.

The average web user today seeks out a curated web experience like Facebook or other social platforms where content is brought to them instead of them searching the web. And within those platforms people create echo chambers by narrowing their focus over time until they only see content that supports their world view. People additionally use the web to do a few additional things like watching Netflix, paying bills, shopping at Amazon and searching on Google.

I don’t point out that trend as a criticism because this is clearly what people want from the web, and they vote by giant numbers to use the big platforms. It’s hard to argue that for the hundreds of millions of people who use the web in this manner that the web is even open for them any longer. People are choosing to use a restricted subset of the web, giving even more power to a handful of giant companies.

The trends are for the web to get even more restricted and condensed. Already today there are only two cellphone platforms – Android and iOS. People on cellphones visit even fewer places on the web than with landline connections. You don’t have to look very far into the future to see an even more restricted web. We are just now starting to talk to the web through Amazon Alexa and Apple Siri. The industry expects a large percentage of web interface to soon be accomplished though voice interface. And beyond that we are moving towards a world of wearables that will replace our cellphones. At some point most people’s web experience will be completely curated and the web we know today will largely become a thing of the quaint past.

It’s not hard to understand why people lean towards curated platforms. Many of them hear the constant news of hacking and ransomware and people don’t feel safe going to unknown websites. The echo chamber has been around as long as modern civilization has been around – people tend to do things they like with people that they know and trust. The echo chamber seems magnified by current social media because it can give the perception that people are part of something larger than themselves – but unless people take actions outside the web that’s largely an illusion.

There are those who don’t want to take part in the curated web. They don’t like the data gathering and the targeted marketing from the big companies. They tend towards platforms that are encrypted end-to-end like WhatsApp. They use browsers that don’t track them. And they stick as much as possible to websites using HTTPS. They are hopeful that the new TLS 1.3 protocol (transport layer security) is going to give them more anonymity than today. But it’s hard work to stay out of the sight of the big companies, and it’s going to get even harder now that the big ISPs are free again to gather and sell data on their customers’ usage.

Even though I’ve been on the web seemingly forever, I don’t necessarily regret the changes that are going on. I hate to see the big companies with such power and I’m one of the people that avoids them as much as I can. But I fully believe that within a few decades that the web as we know it will become a memory. Artificial intelligence will be built into our interfaces with the web and we will rely on smart assistants to take care of things for us. When the web is always with you and when the interfaces are all verbal, it’s just not going to be the same web. I’m sure at some point people will come up with a new name for it, but our future interfaces with computers will have very little in common with our web experiences of today.

Productizing Safety

padlockThe Internet is becoming a scarier place by the day to the average user. It seems like a week doesn’t go by when there isn’t news of some new and huge data breach or other nefarious use of the web. But as much as those big events might create a general industry sense of unease, these announcements also make people worried about their own individual Internet security.

The big ISPs like AT&T crow about recording and monetizing everything that their customers do on the web. And with a likely weakening or elimination of Title II regulation by the FCC this is likely to intensify. Every web site parks cookies on the computers of their visitors, and the bigger sites like Facebook and Google gather every fact fed to them and peddle it to the advertising machine. There are hackers that lock down PCs and hold them hostage until the owner pays a ransom. There are smart TVs that listen to us and IoT devices that track our movements inside our homes. There was news this week that smartphones with a certain Chinese chip have been sending every keystroke back to somebody in China.

All of this has to be making the average Internet user uneasy. And that makes me wonder if there is not a product of some sort that smaller ISPs can offer to customers that can make them feel safer on the web.

Savvy Internet users already take steps to protect themselves. They use ad blockers to reduce cookies. They use browsers like DuckDuckGo that don’t track them. They use encryption and visit sites using HTTPS. They scrub their machine regularly of cookies and extra and unidentified files. In the extreme some use a VPN to keep their ISP from spying on them.

Small ISPs are generally the good guys in the industry and don’t engage in the practices used by AT&T, Comcast and Verizon. I know some small ISPs that try to communicate to their customers about safety. But I think safety is now one of the biggest worries for people and I think small ISPs can do more.

Customers can really use the help. It’s easy to assume that customers ought to understand basic safety procedures, but the vast majority of them load some sort of virus protection on their PC the day they buy it and never think of safety again. They repeatedly do all of the bad things that lead to trouble. They open attachments on emails. They don’t update their software to have the latest security patches. They use social media and other sites without setting basic privacy filters.

I think there is an opportunity for small ISPs to be proactive in helping to make their customers feel safer, and in the process can create more loyal customers. I think there are two possible ways to undertake this. One is an intensive education campaign to inform customers about better web practices. I’m not talking about the occasional safety reminder, but instead a steady and concentrated effort to tell your customers ways to be safer on the web. Brand yourself as being a provider that is looking out for their safety. But don’t pay it lip service – do it in a proactive and concentrated way.

I also think there is a space for a ‘safety’ product line. For example, I have clients who run a local version of the Geek Squad and who repair and maintain people’s computers. It would not be hard to expand on that idea and to put together a ‘safety’ package to sell to customers.

Customers could have a service tech come to their home for a day each year and you could ‘fix’ all of their safety weaknesses. That might mean installing ad blockers and a spyware scrubber. It would mean updating their browsers and other software to the latest version. It could mean helping them to safely remove software they don’t use including the junkware that comes with new computers. It might include making sure they are using HTTPS everywhere. It also might mean selling a VPN for those who want the highest level of security.

I have clients who have been selling this kind of service to businesses for years, but I can’t think of anybody who does this in any meaningful way for residential customers. But since the web is getting less safe by the day there has to be an opportunity for small ISPs to distinguish themselves from larger competitors and to also provide a needed service – for pay of course.