Privacy in the Age of COVID-19

The Washington Post reports that a recent poll they conducted shows that 3 out of 5 Americans are unable or unwilling to use an infection-alerting app that is being developed jointly by Google and Apple. About 1 in 6 adults can’t use the app because they don’t own a smartphone – with the lowest ownership levels for those 65 and older. People with smartphones evenly split between those willing versus unwilling to use such an app.

The major concern among those not willing to use such an app comes from the distrust people have about the ability or willingness of those two tech companies to protect the privacy of their health data. This unwillingness to use such an app, particularly after already seeing the impact that the virus is having on the economy is disturbing to scientists who have said that 60% or more of the public would need to use such an app for it to be effective.

This distrust of tech companies is nothing new. In November the Pew Research Center published the results of the survey that showed how Americans feel about online privacy. That study’s preliminary finding was that more than 60% of Americans think it’s impossible to go through daily life without being tracked by tech companies or the government.

To make that finding worse, almost 70% of adults think that tech companies will use their data in ways they are uncomfortable with. Almost 80% believe that tech companies won’t publicly admit guilt if they are caught misusing people’s data. People don’t feel that data collected about them is secure and 70% believe data is less secure now than it was five years ago.

Almost 80% of people are concerned about what social media sites and advertisers know about them. Probably the most damning result of the survey is that 80% of Americans feel that they have no control over how data is collected about them.

Almost 97% of respondents to the poll said they have been asked to agree to a company’s privacy policy. But only 9% say they always read the privacy policies and 36% have never read them. This is not surprising since the legalese included in most privacy policies requires reading comprehension at a college level.

There is no mystery about why people are worried about the collection of personal data. There have been headlines for several years talking about how personal data has been misused. The Facebook / Cambridge Analytica data scandal showed a giant tech company selling personal data that was used to sway voters. The big cellular companies were caught several times selling customer location data that lets whoever buy it understand where people travel throughout each day. Phone apps of all sorts report back location data, web browsing data, and shopping habits and nobody seems to be able to tell us where that data is sold. Even the supposed privacy advocate Apple lets contractors listen to Siri recordings.

It’s not a surprise that with the level of distrust of tech companies that it’s becoming common for politicians to react to privacy breaches. For example, a bill was introduced into the House last year that would authorize the Federal Trade Commission to fine tech companies to as much as 4% of their gross revenues for privacy violations.

California recently enacted a new privacy law with strict requirements on web companies that mimic the regulations used in Europe. Web companies must provide California consumers the ability to opt-out from having their personal information sold to others. Consumers must be given the option to have their data deleted from the site. Consumes must be provided the opportunity to view the data collected about them. Consumers also must be shown the identity of third parties that have purchased their data.

The unwillingness to use the COVID-tracking app is probably the societal signal that the hands-off approach we’ve had for regulating the Internet needs to come to an end. Most hands-off policies were developed twenty years ago when AOL was conquering the business world and legislators didn’t want to tamp down on a nascent industry. The tech companies are among the biggest and richest companies in the world and there is no reason to not regulate some of their worst practices. This won’t be an easy genie to put back in the bottle, but we have to try.

Why Homes Don’t Have Broadband

I write all of the time about the rural digital divide – about homes that have no broadband options or that have terrible options such as extremely slow DSL or wireless service. The COVID-19 crisis has reminded us that there are also a lot of homes in cities and towns that don’t have broadband.

John B. Horrigan published a paper earlier this year titled Measuring the Gap that makes the point that the reasons that homes don’t have broadband are complicated. There have been studies over the years that have tried to pin down the primary reason that homes don’t have broadband, but by doing so the studies have glossed over the fact that most homes have multiple reasons for not having broadband.

A good example of this is a Pew Research Center survey in 2019 that explored the issue. In that survey:

  • 50% of respondents said that high prices is a reason for not having broadband, but only 21% said price is the primary reason.
  • 45% of respondents said they relied on smartphones that could do everything they need, but only 23% said that was the primary reason for not buying broadband.
  • 43% said they were able to get access to the Internet from a source outside the home, but only 11% gave that as the primary reason.
  • 45% said that the cost of a computer is too expensive, but only 10% gave that as the primary reason.

As Horrigan points out, sometimes there is bias in the questions being asked in a survey. If the surveyor has pre-conceived ideas about why folks don’t have broadband they will miss some of the reasons. Consider a 2017 survey from the California Emerging Technology Fund. This survey showed different reasons than Pew for why homes don’t have broadband because the survey asked different questions. The survey showed:

  • 69% said the cost of monthly access and of affording a computer or smartphone was too high. 34% listed this as the primary reason for not having broadband.
  • 44% said it was too difficult to set up a computer and to learn how to use broadband, which 12% gave this as the primary reason.
  • 42% said they were concerned about privacy and computer viruses, while 21% gave this as the primary reason for not having broadband.
  • 41% said they had a lack of interest in being online, with 22% giving this as the primary reason for not having broadband.

The results of those two surveys are drastically different because the surveys asked different questions. If a survey doesn’t provide the option to say that privacy is a reason for not having broadband, then that gets missed. People can only respond to the questions asked in a survey as presented to them. For example, there were 12% of respondents in the second survey above that worried about privacy as their primary reason for not having broadband. There had to be people that felt the same way in the Pew survey, but since that question was never asked, respondents were forced to pick from among the choices they were given.

This highlights one of the issues of using surveys to find out why people do certain things. Surveys are best used when measuring what people do. For example, a well-designed survey can make a great and reliable estimate of the number of homes in a community that don’t have a home computer. But it’s a lot tougher to use a survey to find out why homes don’t have computers since there might be dozens of reasons for not having one.

Another issue to consider is that people might not tell a surveyor the truthful answer to a question if they think the response is personal. For example, people don’t like to admit that using a computer is too hard for them or that they are intimidated by technology. Many people are not going to tell a stranger that they can’t figure out how to use a computer. However, those same people might willingly share that they would be more likely to use a computer if they had better training. The manner of asking this sort of question can change the response.

This blog is not meant to bash surveys, because a survey is one of the best tools available for understanding broadband in a market. A survey can quantify how many people use different ISPs and can measure their happiness with the various ISPs already in the market. A survey can provide a decently reliable estimate of the percentage of the community that will consider switching to a new ISP. But surveys are a lot less reliable when they ask people to reveal personal reasons why they do or don’t do something – for the simple reason that people are often unwilling to share their shortcomings and fears with a stranger.

This is something to keep in mind if you want to use a survey to understand broadband in your community. Asking questions about sensitive subjects produce unreliable results. As an example, surveys do a lousy job of predicting what people are willing to pay for broadband. A survey can quantify what somebody would like to pay for broadband, but that is not the same question of what they will pay. I’ve seen surveys convince ISPs to set low broadband rates due to faulty survey questions. It’s somewhat meaningless when somebody who is already paying $75 per month for broadband tells you they would only change to a new ISP that charges $45. Such a respondent is likely somewhat embarrassed to admit they are paying too much for broadband today, and that bias makes their answer unreliable.

Writing good survey questions is an art. I’ve been doing that for twenty years and I still find situations where it’s nearly impossible to get the answers that clients are hoping for when the survey probes into questions that customers don’t necessarily want to answer.

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.

Seniors and Broadband

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows that for the first time that more than half of Americans over 65 have a landline broadband connection in their homes. This is a milestone for the industry and is significantly higher than the last time Pew asked the same questions in 2013.

Since the inception of the web seniors have always had a significantly lower broadband adoption rate than other age groups, but this survey shows that seniors are now starting to close the gap. Part of this shift is probably due to the fact that baby boomers are now joining the senior category and bringing their much higher adoption rate for technology with them. But one also has to think that the benefits of broadband are luring more seniors into buying broadband.

The survey also showed the following:

  • 67% of seniors say that they use the Internet.
  • 42% of seniors now own a smartphone, which is triple the percentage from 2013.
  • Of those that use the Internet, 17% go on-line once a day, 51% use the Internet several times per day and 8% say they are on the Internet almost constantly.
  • A much smaller percentage of seniors use social media, but the ones that do use it often. For example, 70% of seniors on Facebook use the service daily.
  • 25% of seniors that go on-line play on-line video games.
  • 58% of seniors think that technology has a positive effect on society. Only 4% think technology is mostly negative.

The survey also looked deeper into the reasons why seniors say they don’t use broadband and found the following:

  • Only 26% of seniors say that they are very confident when using electronic devices. The percentages are far higher for younger age groups.
  • 73% of seniors say they need help using a new electronic device.
  • Disabled seniors seem to use broadband at a much lower rate than those with no disabilities.

ISPs have obviously always had challenges in selling to seniors. But I clients that have done very well selling to seniors and following are a few things I have seen work.

I have one client that has been holding weekly computer training classes for the public for nearly 15 years. Their free classes are filled every week mostly by seniors. They teach what people really want to learn – how to use Facebook, how to deal with emails and spam, how to save and send pictures, etc. They have a much higher broadband penetration rate with seniors than is shown by this survey and they credit their training classes for making seniors comfortable using broadband.

I have another client that sends an employee to sit with every new broadband customers to help them set up everything they want to use. They say they will often spend up to four hours with a new senior customer and will set up their Facebook and email accounts, show them how to use bookmarks, show them how to search for information, etc. And this ISP will take calls from these new customers to answer all of their questions and will make return home visits if needed. They say that word of mouth has emboldened a lot of seniors to buy broadband and because of their continued support they can’t recall any senior who dropped broadband. They think this up-front assistance is time and money well spent because they say that their seniors become the most loyal customers who also have the best track record of paying the monthly broadband bills on time.

I have another client that also holds training classes, but rather than have potential customers come to their office, they have placed computers in several places in the community where seniors gather daily – places like a senior community center, an indoor community swimming pool and gym, and in a popular restaurant that allowed them to put a few computers in a back room. This telco sends somebody to these locations a few times a week to answer questions and to show people how to use the Internet. They say this program has led to significant sales of broadband to seniors.

But I also have a lot of clients that have not done anything specific to help seniors and then see poor broadband adoption rates. My advice to them has always been to look at the efforts to sell to seniors as just another part of the sales process. As this survey shows, it is fear of technology that is still the primary reason why many seniors don’t buy broadband. Any ISP that makes a genuine effort to allay these fears will reap the benefits of increased broadband sales and an appreciative new customer base.

The Increasing Importance of Broadband

4cb1f2dc96040Anybody who does what I do for a living has all sorts of evidence that the demand for broadband has been growing. For example, I have worked with rural communities without broadband for many years and have found that the number of people in those communities who say they will buy broadband is growing larger every year. I now have clients who have built rural networks and who have gotten 75% to 80% of the customers in the market footprint. These kinds of take rates would have been extraordinary five years ago but are now becoming the expected.

Pew Research Center has done a new survey that tries to quantify the importance that people place on broadband. They gave this same survey in 2010 and the new survey lets us see how the response to questions about broadband have changed over time. Here are a few of the new results:

  • 52% of people feel that those without the Internet are at a major disadvantage for finding out about job opportunities or obtaining new career skills. Only 25% thought that this is not a disadvantage.
  • 46% thought those without broadband are at a major disadvantage for learning about or accessing government services.
  • 44% think lack of broadband is a disadvantage for learning new things that will improve or enrich people’s lives.
  • And probably most significant, 69% of respondents in general felt that people without internet access have a major disadvantage.

We can also see how those same three responses have changed just since 2010.

  • Those that feel that the Internet is needed for job skills has grown from 43% to 52%.
  • Those that feel that the Internet is needed for access government services has grown from 29% to 46%.
  • Those that feel that access to broadband enriches people’s lives has grown from 41% to 44%.
  • In 2010 56% of people overall thought not having access to the Internet was a disadvantage, and that is now 69%.

For every question studied the percentage of African-Americans, Hispanics and young adults (ages 18-29) that thought the Internet was vital was higher than other groups.

Interestingly, those without home broadband access at home were slightly less likely to think that not having broadband is a major disadvantage. For example, in the recent poll 65% of them thought not having broadband was a major disadvantage compared to 69% of all respondents. But this is also the group that saw the biggest change since 2010 when only 35% of non-broadband households thought that was a disadvantage.

These kinds of surveys are interesting, but of course there are a hundred other questions you’d like to see asked. But sticking to the same questions that were asked in 2010 show how much the importance of broadband has grown in just five years.

I see this shift every day. I’ve been helping communities look for broadband solutions for nearly 15 years. Years ago when a community wanted to talk about broadband there were generally two reasons for it. First was economic development, meaning either attracting new jobs to a community or keeping the existing jobs from leaving. Secondly, communities wanted to get some price competition and thought that the incumbent providers didn’t care about their communities.

But today the demand for better broadband comes from citizens demanding a solution from local politicians. People hear of other communities that have found a way to bring broadband and they want the same. People without broadband are starting to feel like they are being left behind – and to a great extent they are. This kind of survey just reaffirms what we already know.

The Birth of a New Digital Divide

eyeballPew Research Center released some interesting data a few weeks ago that suggest that cord cutting might be starting to affect broadband connections and not just cable connections. According to a recent Pew poll, 67% of households now have a landline broadband connection, down from a high in 2013 of 70%.

When you consider both landline broadband and cellular data products together you get a slightly different story and the combination of the two services was 80% of households in 2015, up from 78% in 2013. Pew draws the conclusion that there is now a migration from households with a wireline connection to households that only use cellphone data. Pew reports that 13% of households now rely on cellphone data as their only connection to the Internet.

Luckily the latest Pew poll dug into this phenomenon in more detail and what they found was that 59% of all of the households using only cellular data do not buy a landline data product due to price. This matches very well with the report put out by the Brookings Institute last month that shows that landline broadband adoption rates are very related to income.

But Pew is the first one to suggest that there is an overall drop in landline broadband adoption. For example, when the major ISPs release customer counts every quarter there has been a steady and noticeable overall growth in broadband customers. Within those statistics there has been a steady and noticeable drop in DSL customers and an increase in cable modem customers, but overall the trend has always been upward.

But if the Pew numbers hold up to be right over time, then this might suggest that we are going to reach a market cap on broadband customers that is lower than what the industry has been expecting. And this cap will be driven by the price of the products, not the desire of homes to have broadband.

I was just reminiscing about the changes in prices in the industry the other day. I can remember back to a time in the mid-90s when I paid $19.95 a month to AOL, something a little less than $30 for my landline from Verizon, and around $50 for a cable package that included some movie channels. That was the whole triple play for $100 per month.

But today the cost of telecom products is much higher and has grown much faster than inflation. We now have households where most of the family pays at least $50 each for a cellular line (not including the cost of the phone). While there are still some inexpensive DSL plans available in some places, it costs at least $50 per month to get a decent data speed. And the big cable companies all report the average revenue from all of their cable plans is more than $70 per month. Only about half of households still have landlines and those can vary anywhere from $20 to $40 per month. And the costs don’t stop there. Most people are paying for settop boxes and cable modems, the prices on both have crept up to $7 – $8 each. And all ISPs now have a range of ‘fees’ that many people assume are taxes but which go straight into the ISP’s pockets.

And then there are the new services that weren’t around in 1995: a lot of houses now pay for Netflix and possibly for music services like Spotify, people must now buy cellphones that are generally obsolete every two years, and on top of those prices the carriers want to tack on handset insurance and other fees to cellular bills. Finally, there are data overages. Today that mostly affects cellphone users but, as seen by the rash of complaints against Comcast, is likely to start affecting landline data bills as well.

While it’s possible to work hard and find bundles to try to hold these costs down, without bundles these equate to telecom bills north of $300 per month. And even those that bundle would have a hard time buying these all of these things for under $200 per month.

So it’s not hard understand why households find they can’t afford all of these things. It’s hard to imagine any household that wants to partake in modern services like Netflix being satisfied with only cellular data and its tiny caps. But if you are on a budget something has to give and it’s pretty easy to understand that somebody is going to value a smartphone over a home Internet connection if you can only afford to buy one of them.

When you consider that the ISPs all intend to start increasing the cost of broadband annually like they have always done with cable then one can expect this situation to get worse over time. This means there will be a whole new digital divide defined strictly by income. People will want the products in the market but will be unable to afford them.

How We Deal with Surveillance

SpyVsSpyThe fact that governments spy on us has been in the news a lot in the last two years since Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the US spying. It’s not just the US government; similar revelations have come out even in countries like Canada.

The folks at the Pew Research Center asked Americans how the knowledge that they are being watched has changed their behavior. Not surprisingly, a pretty large majority of people have made no changes. But the survey found that some people have changed their behavior, and here are some of the key findings in this survey:

  • 87% of people said that they had heard about the government surveillance. Only 31% said they had heard a lot about it and 56% said they had heard a little about it.
  • 34% of those who were aware of the surveillance had made at least one change to shield or hide their information from the government.
    • 17% changed their privacy settings on social media
    • 15% have used social media less often
    • 15% have begun avoiding apps that want access to their personal data
    • 14% say they are speaking to friends in person rather than communicating online or using the Internet
    • 13% uninstalled apps
    • 13% have edited themselves so as not to use what they consider to be sensitive terms online
  • Those who have made changes tend to be younger than 50 and also to be in the category of those who heard a lot about the surveillance, or who thought that the surveillance was not in the public’s interest.
  • Many people just cut back on using certain applications or have modified the way they use them. 18% did this with email, 17% with search engines, 15% with social media sites, 15% with cellphones, 13% with mobile apps, 13% with text messages, and 9% with landline phones.
  • 25% of people have started using more complex passwords.
  • Most people either do not know about or have not considered using tools that make it harder to track them. The percentages of people in these categories for various anti-surveillance tools include: 68% for search engines that don’t track you, 59% for email encryption software, 74% for browser plug-ins like DoNotTrackMe or Privacy Badger, 74% for proxy servers, and 70% for anonymity software like Tor.

The survey also asked how people feel about government surveillance and the results were mixed. 40% of Americans found it acceptable to monitor other Americans, 54% to monitor citizens of other countries, 60% to monitor leaders of both the US and of other countries, and 82% for monitoring ‘terrorists’.

Of those who are aware of the surveillance, 61% said that they are not confident that surveillance is serving the public interest. Republicans and those leaning Republican were more likely than Democrats to say they are losing confidence in surveillance.

In an interesting divide of opinion, 49% thought that courts were doing a good job of balancing the needs of intelligence against the rights to privacy while 49% thought they were not.

And finally, when asked how people felt about the government looking at their own personal data, 38% were concerned about emails, 39% were concerned about search engine results, 37% were concerned about cellphone usage, 31% were concerned about social media, and 29% were concerned about mobile apps.

I know I personally have cut way back on my viewing of cat videos. After all, I don’t want the government knowing I am a crazy old cat man (which unfortunately might be the case!).

Pew Research Privacy Studies

SpyVsSpyPew Research recently took two separate looks at the issue of privacy. First, they conducted a survey to see how the general public in the US feels about on-line privacy. They also polled 2,511 “technology builders, researchers, managers, policymakers, marketers, analysts and those who have been insightful respondents in previous studies.”

Some of the more interesting results of the survey are as follows:

  • 91% of adults agreed that consumers have lost control of how personal information is gathered and used on the Internet.
  • 88% agree that it would be very difficult to remove inaccurate information about themselves online.
  • 80% who use social media are concerned that businesses are accessing what they share.
  • 64% thought the government should do more to monitor on-line advertisers.
  • 61% disagreed with the statement, “I appreciate that online services are more efficient because of the increased access they have to my personal data”.
  • But to show how mixed feelings are about online advertising, 55% agreed with the statement, “I am willing to share some information about myself with companies in order to use online services for free”. There must be people who agreed with this who also disagreed with the previous question.

There were also questions about government spying on Americans:

  • 95% were aware that the NSA is collecting telephone records and online records on everyone.
  • 80% were concerned that the government is monitoring phone calls and monitoring the Internet.
  • Only 36% agreed with the statement, “It is a good thing for society if people believe that someone is keeping an eye on the things they do online”.

People were asked which method of communications they felt most secure using. Following are the percentages of people that felt either somewhat secure or very secure: landlines – 67%; cellphones – 52%; email – 40%; text messages – 39%; IM or chat – 29%; and social media – 16%. These findings correlated well with knowledge of the NSA surveillance – the more somebody knew about the NSA the less secure they felt using communications.

Only 62% of people have ever used a search engine to look up their own name to see what is known about them on the Internet. 47% of people assume that people they meet will look them up. Only 6% of people have set an automatic alert to notify them when their name appears on the web.

People are cautious about posting controversial comments on the internet. 59% have posted using a screen name that people associate with them. 55% have posted using their real name, and 42% have posted anonymously.

24% say that their employer has rules or guidelines about how they are allowed to present themselves online. 11% say that their job requires them to promote themselves through social media or other online tools.

In the poll of the industry experts, only 55% believe that there will be a “secure, popularly accepted and trusted privacy-rights infrastructure by 2025”. The experts almost universally agree that we are living in a period of ubiquitous surveillance.

Many of the experts believe that it is not possible to create an effective privacy rights system. They believe that both government and industry have very little incentive to reverse the already invasive status quo and that they have much to gain from continued monitoring of information.

It’s obvious in looking at these results that people are aware of how ubiquitous surveillance is and that what they say on the Internet is seen by others. Most people are concerned about how the government or businesses view and use their information, and of the consequences of what they post with their employer. Of course, this still leaves me wondering how to explain drunk selfies!

Predictions Ten Years Later

Alexander_Crystal_SeerI often report on how industry experts see the future of our industry. It’s an interesting thought experiment, if nothing else, to speculate where technology is moving. In 2004 the Pew Internet Project asked 1,286 industry experts to look ten years forward and to predict what the Internet would be like in 2014. I found it really interesting to see that a significant percentage of experts got many of the predictions wrong. Here are some of the specific predictions made in 2004:

66% of the experts thought that there would be at least one devastating cyberattack within the following ten years. While there have been some dramatic hacks against companies, mostly to steal credit card numbers and related information, there have been no cyberattacks that could be categorized as crippling. The experts at the time predicted that terrorists would be able to take over power plants or do other drastic things that have never materialized.

56% thought that the internet would lead to a widespread expansion of home-schooling and telecommuting. There certainly has been growth in telecommuting, but not nearly to the extent predicted by the experts. It’s the same with home schooling, and while it’s grown there is not yet a huge and obvious advantage of home schooling over traditional schooling. The experts predicted that the quality and ease of distance learning would make home schooling an easy choice for parents and that has not yet materialized.

50% of them thought that there would be free peer-to-peer music sharing networks. Instead the recording industry has been very successful in shutting down peer-to-peer sites and there are instead services like Spotify that offer a huge variety of free music legally, paid for by advertising.

Only 32% thought that people would use the Internet to support their political bias and filter out information they disagree with. Studies now show that this is one of the major consequences of social networking, in that people tend to congregate with others who share their world view. This finding is related to the finding that only 39% thought that social networks would be widespread by 2014. The experts en masse did not foresee the wild success that would be enjoyed by Facebook, twitter and other social sites.

52% said that by 2014 that 90% of households would have broadband that was much faster than what was available in 2004. At the end of 2013 Leichtman Research reported that 83% of homes had some sort of broadband connection. That number was lower than predicted by the majority of experts, but what was even lower is the average speed that people actually purchase. Akamai reports that the average connection speed in the US at the end of 2013 was 8.7 Mbps. But this was not distributed in the expected bell curve and that average consists of a small percentage of homes with very fast connections (largely driven by Verizon FiOS and other fiber providers) but with many homes with speeds that are not materially faster than what was available in 2004. For example, Time Warner just announced this past week that they are finally increasing the speed of their base product from 3 Mbps to 6 Mbps.

32% thought that online voting would be secure and widespread by 2014. There are now a number of states that allow on-line voter registration, but only a tiny handful of communities have experimented with on-line voting. It has become obvious that there is a real potential for hacking and fraud with on-line voting.

57% of them thought that virtual classes would become widespread in mainstream education. This has become true in some cases. General K-12 education has not moved to virtual classes. Many schools have adopted distance learning to bring distant teachers into the classroom, but there has been no flood of K-12 students moving to virtual education. Virtual classes, however, have become routine for many advanced degrees. For example, there are hundreds of master degree curriculums that are almost entirely on-line and self-paced.

But the experts did get a few things right. 59% thought that there would be a significant increase in government and business surveillance. This has turned out to be true in spades. It seems everybody is now spying on us, and not just on the Internet, but with our smartphones, with our smart TVs, and even with our cars and with the IOT devices in our homes.

The Pew Institute continues to conduct similar surveys every few years and it will be interesting to see if the experts of today can do better than the experts of 2004. What those experts failed to recognize were things like the transformational nature of smartphones, the widespread phenomenon of social networking and the migration from desktops to smaller and more mobile devices. Those trends are what drove us to where we are today. In retrospect if more experts had foreseen those few major trends correctly then they probably would have also guessed more of the details correctly. Within the sample of experts there were undoubtedly some experts who guessed really well, but the results were not published by expert and so we can’t see who had the best crystal ball.

When Customers Comment

comment-boxPew Research Center has released another interesting poll that looks at how people interact with each other on social networks. There were two primary findings from that poll, which are both things that most of us have observed but that were interesting to see validated.

The first is that social networks tend to have a suppressive impact on the willingness of people to express personal opinions on a social network. On sites like Facebook and Twitter people tend to hang out with people of a like mind and this creates what Pew calls a ‘spiral of silence’. This is something I have always thought of as peer pressure. When people are on the same network with their kids, their parents, other relatives, their coworkers and their friends they tend to be reluctant to share views that they know are contrary or controversial to the views shared by their ‘friends’ on the social sites.

The study was conducted by looking at how willing people were to discuss the Edward Snowden – NSA story about the government spying on apparently everybody in the world. It turns out that people were less likely to discuss the topic on Facebook and Twitter (42%) than they were when talking live with somebody (86%). It’s obvious that the peer pressure of a social network stops people from expressing views that they might freely express somewhere else.

That’s interesting, but the other finding is that an opposite thing happens when people post on other sites like newspapers or customer service sites. There, the peer pressure seems to have the opposite effect and people tend to pile on to negative comments made by others. It’s almost as if seeing a negative comment gives them the courage to also say something negative. Anybody who owns a web site with a customer service contact page that that allows public comments knows about this phenomenon. On such sites many people will say things that they would never say in public and comments can quickly escalate and get incredibly nasty.

This creates a real dilemma for a company that wants to maintain a place for customers to comment, seek help or ask questions on the web. Many companies have shown that having a public forum can be an extremely effective way to identify problems that they might otherwise never know about. And the web creates a way to respond and often solve problems quickly.

But you need to have a thick skin if the comments on your site take a turn towards the ugly. One angry comment can lead to another until your site is flocked by angry people, many who might not even be your customers. All of the social media experts I read recommend that a company must engage customers in this sort of situation rather than withdraw or delete comments. They say experience shows that when a company addresses hostility in a reasonable, calm, persistent and truthful way that the company will be viewed as more human.

If you can further demonstrate that you are willing to solve some of the problems that caused the comments to escalate it’s quite possible to win some of your detractors over to your side. It seems that the phenomenon of piling on to negative comments, perhaps described as negative peer pressure, can be defused by reasonable tactics by a company.

You can’t wade into such a situation and just try to mollify people by being nice. That is the sort of behavior that people expect from customer service reps on the phone and they generally don’t like it on line. Instead you can feel free to disagree with people as long as you are doing so with facts and respect.

There are going to be angry people that you cannot mollify or even have a discussion with and sometimes the comments might get so vile that you will have little choice but to delete or ignore them. But when people have legitimate concerns and they go overboard in expressing unhappiness and frustration you can usually win them over by providing facts and solutions. After all, anybody complaining on your site obviously has a vested interest in your product or service and they generally want to like it. Your job in this situation is to help them do so.