Double-edged Net: Good for shopping, bad for morals

New report says online commerce seeing strong growth -- despite a perception that it's evil.

While four million UK surfers have embraced online shopping, over half view the Internet as "a threat to the nation's morality" according to a Which? survey published Thursday.

The MORI report -- "Are You Being Served? Growth of an E-nation" -- surveyed 2000 people across the UK last month and says Internet shopping has more than doubled since last year, with one in ten Net users describing themselves as regular online shoppers. While this is great news for e-commerce firms, it is not an entirely bright future. An alarming 57 percent see the Internet as a threat to the morality of Britain.

Report author Alan Stevens is surprised by the figures and blames the press for scaremongering. "It is the public's perception fuelled by the tabloid media, that porn is rife on the Internet and there is nothing to prevent children from accessing it. Both of these things are untrue," he says. But despite Stevens' protests, surfers and non-surfers alike are not getting the message.

Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed said they were concerned by the amount of pornography online. Three quarters of parents said they would not let their children use the Net unsupervised, with the same number convinced of the need for regulation of content.

Despite the fears, the report says 10 million Brits are now online with almost 40 percent getting online within the past year -- a 50 percent increase from last year's report. But not everyone is convinced of the benefits of the Internet. Twenty million people currently have no intention of ever going online, citing a lack of relevance and cost as reasons.

Online purchases have also become more mainstream, with books, flights and holidays taking over from computer goods as the main products bought. The number of women online has increased by about 20 percent. Women now make up 43 percent of the online population. "We were surprised by the huge leap in online shopping," says Stephens. "It is more than two and a half times last year's figures. With four million people shopping online and one in ten shopping weekly the Net is becoming mainstream. More ordinary consumers are buying normal consumer goods," he says.

Eight out of ten users were surprised by how easy Net shopping was, although one in ten wanted site navigation improved and more than a quarter were fed up with download times. For consumers worried about the security of online shopping, Stevens has some advice. "Only go to sites with a closed padlock icon, which guarantees credit-card encryption and protection of shopping rights." Stevens also advises shoppers to look out for the Which-approved kitemarking scheme -- Webtrader -- if they want to be sure a company is trading properly on the Internet. Two hundred fifty UK companies have already signed up for the scheme which has UK and EU government backing.

Another surprise, in light of recent security scares, is the continued growth in the use of email, which remains the most popular Net activity. More than half those surveyed use email regularly. One in five prefer email to any other form of communication, the survey says.

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