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Internet Policy Creates Havoc, Benefits for Small Businesses, Nonprofits, Others

We can’t emphasize enough the importance of the following information for businesses, non-profit groups, educators and others who host or visit Websites. If it hasn’t already affected you chances are it soon will. 

A major policy change is in the early stages of being implemented across the Internet. Consumers are being confused and misled by it. Small businesses are suffering economic losses. Nonprofits, entrepreneurs and others are losing followers.

So what’s it all about? A form of Internet security affecting those who own Websites and others who visit Websites. As in, most people these days. The purposes of it are positive, but as sometimes happens with new approaches, unintended consequences can occur and they have with this one.

For years those who own Websites have had the option of purchasing a security tool to protect consumer data. Called an SSL certificate (which stands for Secure Socket Layer), Websites that have SSLs have a layer of protection that other sites don’t.

In simple terms the SSL helps safeguard data that consumers who visit various types of Websites enter onto those sites – such as passwords, credit card numbers, banking information, customer orders, email addresses, comments, requests and other information meant to be kept private. With an SSL the visitor data is encrypted for privacy purposes, blocking hackers from seeing or accessing it.

The thickness of the layer, so to speak, determines the extent of protection. There are several types of SSLs and they vary by price, services and guarantees. The standard SSL is used by most. Higher priced versions may be necessary for a business or other entity that processes certain types and volumes of consumer data.

The policy decision on SSLs was a corporate one made by Google a few years back. In the latter part of last year they began flagging Websites that collect certain types of sensitive information and marking them as “Insecure” if the sites lacked an SSL. Broader implementation is happening now.

As a so-called techie type change not in the general consumer or small business spotlight, most people aren’t aware of the policy or what it means to them. But more people are becoming aware of it as more Websites that lack an SSL are being marked as “Insecure”.

Security designations are being done in several ways, some of them with warnings that would instantly scare consumers away from the Websites, whether or not the sites were actually insecure.  

Here’s what’s happening now: when you type in a Web address to Google, Firefox or certain other search engines and the Web page comes up one or more messages or indicators will appear at the front of the address (the URL in the address bar) – like an “i” with a circle around it (which, when clicked on, states that the connection is Insecure if there's no SSL in place) … or by the actual words "Secure" or “Insecure Site” appearing ahead of the URL … or with a green padlock showing as locked or unlocked ... or the site may not even come up and a message may instead appear in the center of your screen saying the site is insecure and that hackers could get your personal information. Some such messages are actually getting stronger as part of the phased-in implementation. Other search engines may also soon be following suit. And Google announced this month plans for a ramped-up approach in the coming months.

All of this has the positive effect of protecting private consumer information. It’s, in effect, an effort to create a new Internet culture where both Website sponsors and consumers are responsible for the safety of Internet users and consumer data. So what’s the matter with that?

The main problem is that many Websites don’t collect consumer information, yet they too are being flagged with such messages – a major turn-off to would-be visitors and customers, easily resulting in lost visitor traffic, lost confidence and lost business.

What’s more, search engine rankings (where prospective customers, supporters and followers find Websites through Internet searches) can now drop without an SSL. Google’s search engine, for example, is already giving priority to sites that have SSLs. Those without them will be harder to find through a Google search.

SSLs are not free so businesses, nonprofits and others must incur the cost of getting one. Typical costs range from $60 to several hundred dollars each and the cost is annual.

If a business doesn’t need the SSL because they don’t collect consumer data it’s an unnecessary cost. If they have multiple Websites the added cost could become a financial burden. Internet marketers and others that own lots of sites are feeling the pinch for sure.

Then there are the problems that can come up with installing SSLs – including potentially knocking your Website off of the Internet for hours or days and putting in its place a prominent warning statement that your site is insecure. Even we had this happen with several of our sites and it was very distressing! – made worse by the fact that it was completely out of our control and they there was no way to explain to random visitors that our site was actually safe.

Many businesses and other organizations aren’t even aware that all of this is affecting their operations and their success. Many consumers don’t know what the messaging really means and that the warnings are appearing on sites that don’t even collect consumer data. Getting people more informed on the subject is an immediate need.

To be clear, we strongly support improving Internet security and we value our SSLs. We also appreciate Internet leaders taking a stand to encourage safe practices. Unfortunately, there’s been a downside to this policy that we assume was unforeseen and a clear lack of public awareness in how to deal with it.

We want to help others avoid the headaches, confusion and even nightmares as this new and far-reaching approach is carried out further. So we’ve put together a short and easy to follow video with key points on how you can deal with this issue in ways that meet your needs. Sign in here to access this timely information. 

Article by Marcia Elder, Director, The Virtual Solutions Center - February 2018

UPDATE: Since the above article was posted Google has announced that even more stringent measures will be implemented for sites that don't have SSLs by July. Warnings about encryption needs are appearing, even for some sites that have SSLs but may have certain content, like images, that could make them vulnerable. Consumers can avoid entering passwords and other personal or private information on sites that they don't know to be secure. As a Google and industry standard: a green padlock shown as locked in a Web address (as shown for our Website in the URL above) signals that the site IS secure.  The presence (or absence) of the padlock and the word Secure (or Not Secure) is not controlled by the site owner or Webmaster.

​​Again, we can’t emphasize enough the importance of this information for businesses, non-profits, educators and others who have or visit Websites.