Internet Pioneers Prague Meeting Highlights Need for ODR (Online Dispute Resolution) in E-commerce

On the opposite, they made it possible for us to link all the issues related to today’s e-commerce customer relationship management. The notions of trust and respect were at the centre of all debates, therefore highlighting the need for trusted third parties, mostly in Europe, even though the approach, as often, is different from country to country.

[*Disclosure: Youstice is my client]

Doc Searls in Prague: despite what the message in Czech on the screen says, a clear signal was sent by the co-author of the Cluetrain manifesto during our meeting: respect your clients!

E-commerce: it’s a matter of trust

Doc Searls’ initial title for this discussion was “terms and policies individuals assert”. The discussion started with a consensus around Doc’s introduction to the meeting: “freedom of contract was established a long time ago in order to do business but in 1943, in order to gain scale, the law was changed, which means that one party is issuing the contract and the other is forced to accept or reject it (as when we buy stuff from Websites and are forced to accept terms of conditions which keep changing)” Doc said. Doc Searls, for those who can’t remember, is a co-author of the Cluetrain manifesto, which is still available at; a fundamental piece of Internet marketing literature which was already pinpointing the need to consider Web viewers not as “eyeballs”, but human beings(1).

As is always the case with the Internet, all users are decision makers, whether some merchants like it or not; and from there came the idea of ‘do not track(2)’. “We are right at the beginning of that” Doc went on. A company called the Respect Network(3) have issued a document entitled the “respect trust framework(4)” which spells out principles like “both parties will respect the boundaries of the other party”. These issues of trust and respect are at the heart of the need for Online Dispute Revolution (ODR) as we will find out later on.

Two parties of equal power

Essentially, there is a need to “establish contracts between two parties of equal power” Doc went on. It is very early days but one thing that is happening is that “the system we have is broken and it needs to be fixed”. What was working well for few large companies in the industrial age isn’t working that well in the Internet age at all. “A lot of people are coming to us from and other large Internet companies” Doc Searls added, and they understand that they need to deal with customers in a much better way. They used to think we were “communists” but this is over, they are jumping on the bandwagon now.

A new effort is also going on in the UK about what Doc called “consent receipt” for which any time a customer gives consent, they get a receipt. “This is a step forward in the right direction” he added. They are working on the “log in with respect” button with regard to Facebook and other social connect mechanisms. It’s hard to say what Facebook will be up to with your data. “If one comes up with this alternative button, there’s code which one will be able to install on site-side. This ensures that one enforces respect and issues statements you won’t tamper with users’ data” Doc explained. January is the potential release date, currently going through Kickstarter.

B.A. may not need an ODR (Online Dispute Resolution) system, but smaller players do

Esther Dyson, once head of ICANN in the early days of the Internet, joined the conversation mentioning that if there is “an issue with privacy, there is also one with regard to trust”. “British Airways doesn’t really need an ODR system like Youstice because they already have a reputation” Dyson said; even though there has been some traction with larger merchants and e-merchants which would tend to prove that a trusted third party for dispute resolutions is not only a technical solution; it is also instrumental in reassuring clients who expect neutrality and fairness. “The target for ODR is the sites that customers don’t trust” Dyson went on. Respect isn’t enough. Indeed, consumers want to be able to trust the shops they buy from. This is only natural in an increasingly globalised world where extra European buyers can make online purchases from 3-4 different merchants, not always located in the same country. It is hard to trust someone you cannot see in a country you know nothing about.

Esther Dyson (middle) with entrepreneur Zbynek Loebl (right). Meeting with Esther was like meeting a legend. The first time I heard about the Internet was in a Channel 4 program in 1994! (the program was entitled “Visions of Heaven and Hell” things haven’t changed that much after all!

The aim of ODR: reduce the number of disreputable merchants

“The ODR promise is that we’ll give customers the potential to negotiate one to one and resolve issue on an individual basis” Esther Dyson pointed out. The idea is to reduce the number of disreputable merchants. One of the issue with privacy though, is “that you never know when it’s been reached; you only know when it’s too late” the former head of ICANN and member of the Youstice board of advisors added. A tower of Babel, and the need for a common language Trust and respect aren’t sufficient, and there are more things in that balance of modern e-commerce which is more and more a cross-border issue: “there is a need for an enforcement mechanism and current legal systems can’t help because they are different in all parts of the world” explained Zbynek Loebl, co-founder of Youstice and our host for that week-end in Prague. And it’s very hard to predict that such enforcement mechanisms could be in place any time soon according to the Czech entrepreneur.