Consumer Challenges of the Digital Economy

August 7, 2012

I’ve just returned to the office after spending a very rewarding week at the Chautauqua Institute located on the shores of beautiful Lake Chautauqua in upstate New York. The Chautauqua Institute is a very unique establishment that traces its roots to the 19th Century when it began as a program to train Christian Sunday school teachers. I feel very at home at Chautauqua and I find it to be a place where I can experience intellectual and spiritual growth while I explore issues that impact the world that we all share.

Each week the Chautauqua Institution chooses a different “theme” which is the focus of the lectures and discussion for that particular week. The theme for the week of my visit this year is “Digital Identity” and I’ve spent the week listening to talks by people ranging from business executives to journalists to clergy discuss their experiences and thoughts on how the internet has impacted how we relate to each other and the communities in which we live.

As I listened to the various speakers I realized that their messages have great relevance to the work I do as a lawyer and the problems that bring people in to see me. Through the rise the Internet and digital culture we have gained the ability to exchange information and communicate in ways that only a few decades ago were unimaginable. However, with these benefits also come with new problems and challenges. Certainly, privacy issues abound. We live in an age when a lifetime worth of data can be transferred, deliberately or not, in an instant.

While new technology can create jobs I also see large numbers of people who have been displaced from their jobs by online services and web based applications. The financial

services industry has embraced technology and utilized it to building global corporations. However, these new mega-banks are so script driven that the people they employ seem incapable of exercising any independent judgment. All decision-making appears to have been removed from the human beings and placed into a computer algorithm.

A digital economy can be great when things are routine, but it can be nightmarish when a consumer requires individualized attention. One of the best examples of this nightmarish aspect involves families who are seeking assistance with mortgage modification. The well-established scenario involves the customer being told that they can’t be considered for a modification until they’ve missed 3 payments. They are then told to send in their financial records, which are lost more often than not. Calls to the financial institution are routed to a call center where operators following a script deliver an exasperating process while delivering little in the way of actual results. The process can best be described as cruel and heartbreaking.

One very notable area where digital technology has been used to torment consumers has been the use of robo-calls by debt collectors. With robo-calling consumers are harassed by the use of repeated computer generated phone calls that are designed to disrupt and distress the consumer.

At present, technology is advancing faster than the law. When the existing consumer protection laws were first written the technology we now use in our daily lives existed only as science fiction. However, these technological advances also provide consumer protection attorneys such as myself with new and improved tools with which to advocate for my clients. I now of have online legal research, cloud based document storage, document automation, and even secure video-conferencing with my client. These technologies allow me to compete against large law firms and provide affordable legal services to my clients in a manner that would have been impossible a generation earlier.

In summary, I think the key to this new digital world is that while we enjoy the benefits of the new emerging technologies we must make an extra effort to also maintain our human connections with each other. We are much more than an account number or an IP address, we are people and we deserve much more respect and dignity than being forced into scripted call center conversations.


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