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Publication: Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN)
Date: January 24, 1993
Title: Technology, trust are keys to consumer protection
Byline: Dan Wascoe Jr.; Staff Writer
Now that Clinton appointees are unpacking, the usual consumer advocates will demand more and
better government action to protect us from the perils of the marketplace.
James Snider, a Vermont writer and teacher, also describes himself as a consumer advocate but
he contends that many traditional consumer interest groups are pushing the wrong buttons and
seeking obsolete remedies.
“Where I agree with traditional consumer advocates is [that] there is significant market failure,”
he said. “Buyers are uninformed and need new mechanisms” to help them make purchases
effectively in an economy rife with choices.
Snider said consumers’ best hope lies in high technology and, curiously, trust. By technology he
means either computer disks or sophisticated telecomputers that provide prospective customers
with detailed, reliable information about quality and prices. By trust he means a network of
independent, conflict-free consumer agents who would gather, digest and supply that information
for an affordable fee.
“They’ll be like a trusted friend, like 150 years ago,” Snider said. “That’s what we’re going to go
back to. You’ll have these agents, and you’ll trust them.”
Such a responsive network would render many traditional government regulations and laws
unnecessary, he said, but it would require safeguards that the agents are not underwritten or paid
off by the companies they evaluate.
Snider drew an analogy to investing in a mutual fund and relying on its professional manager:
“You’re hiring an agent to make decisions for you and paying a large information fee.”
These future consumer agents, in turn, would draw help from independent clearinghouses,
established with government support, that would pull specific consumer information from a wide
variety of sources, including data that the private sector cannot generate or collect by itself.
In a recent article in the Futurist magazine, Snider wrote that the clearinghouses could, for
example, compile the fees charged for every medical procedure by every physician in the
country. They also could make available college students’ ratings of professors. Such
evaluations, – digested, organized, and translated – could make comparison shopping much
easier, he said.
Consumers Union, for which Snider used to work, is an example of how a clearinghouse might
work, but CU’s scope and resources are small and it is “just not a significant factor in the
marketplace as a whole,” he said.
Telephone services – 800 and 900 numbers – and computer resources such as Prodigy offer a
narrow glimpse of the access consumers can expect in future decades, he said, but he insists,
“We live in the Dark Ages today. People didn’t complain about horses until we had cars . . . The
information we have today restricts us in our quality of life, not to mention economic costs.”
To make this wealth of information available, fast-changing electronics will play a crucial role
but “I don’t know how it’s going to play out because the technology is so much in turmoil,” he
Changing demands for wireless transmission of data – cellular phones are just one example –
could make the spectrum of broadcast frequencies “the most valuable resource in the United
States. TV has been getting it for free and it won’t be happy to give it up – even if it is obsolete.”
Snider predicted that a struggle for access to that spectrum may be one of “the great political
issues of the future.”
That’s why he hopes to push his ideas with incoming members of the Clinton administration.
Perhaps he took heart from at least one line in the new president’s inaugural address.
“Technology,” the president said, “is almost magic.”