What value is online trust?

I've just experienced the very worst in online customer service and from an SSL Certification Authority which should have known better.

What's sad about my experience with StartCom is that the company came recommended by a website developer. So I wasn't quite expecting managerial rudeness in response to a perfectly good question about whether the company operated under UK law. Since it wasn't obvious from the website exactly where the company was based it seemed a perfectly acceptable 'due diligence" question to ask...

"What?" came back the one-word email. Not a good first impression then!

But, a subsequent exchange of emails escalated a deterioration in the online supplier-customer relationship until I finally cancelled the account in disgust. Maybe it was my criticism of his customer service skills or his big deal about me forgetting to complete a section in the online application form concerning my home address. Fact is, I never saw it! If the section had been that important anyway the online process should have forced me to complete it. It all got too silly for words!

But, today's experience did get me thinking about the issue of online trust. What does trust actually mean? What gives me confidence in the companies I want to buy from? Recommendation, word of mouth (not on this occasion), information provided (if I can find it), membership of a profession body/trade association, trust marks, branding, customer service... Even the little padlock symbol or 'https' in the browser I now question following today's incident - what sort of companies become certification authorities?

The EU Digital Agenda supports a pan-European platform for trust mark for consumers. We're all familiar with caveat emptor - buyer beware and the plethora of consumer laws designed to protect those buying in a private capacity who don't have the same bargaining power as a commercial entity. But businesses also need confidence when shopping online, one of the reasons why I like the proposed European Sales Law that would set out some standard contractual terms upon which parties can rely.

So I'm pleased to support Boniface Atem from Manchester University's School of Computer Science in his MSc project to help determine the value and relevance of online trust marks. There are lots of questions still to answer.

And just to show I have no animosity against StartCom the company always has the right of reply. I'd like to think the incident was a one-off ...