Can the Internet be saved?

December 25, 2006

“It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news,
for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes, to be drowned in advertising chatter…”

It was 1922, the subject was the infant medium of radio, the speaker was Herbert Hoover. He was U.S. secretary of commerce, and six years later was elected president. Hoover was old school Republican, so deferential to business that he’s remembered now for refusing to step on the private sector’s toes with aggressive public programs that might have halted the slide into the Great Depression.

Yet even Hoover understood that a pristine new technology could be ruined by business-as-usual. His bold talk about keeping ads off the airwaves – later, as president, he recanted — is a reminder of the kind of hope new communications technologies inspire. The pioneers often sound more like prophets than profiteers. That changes.

So to the Internet. With its legions of independent content-makers, bloggers and freewheeling citizen-journalists, and its unrelenting pace of innovation, the Internet brims with just such millennialist promise. It also, unfortunately, offers unparalleled openings for the kinds of commercial pillage, subversion and influence-peddling that in any other medium we’d recognize as corrupt.

A disquieting op-ed column in the New York Times recently offered a roster of political bloggers who during the last elections were accepting money from one candidate or another. Some told their readers, others didn’t. Some made disclosures in some venues but not elsewhere.

For their part, candidates with an eye to ‘08  among them Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama  are reported to be lining up influential bloggers to do double-duty as campaign consultants. The politicos are keen to reach the blog-going public, and for all the brave posturings about the Internet’s culture of transparency it’s plain that online hirelings are much more persuasive when their wisdom isn’t clearly, consistently and prominently labeled as paid content.

In this respect politicians are following the lead of the business sector, which is test-driving a variety of oily, online marketing contrivances. Sony launched a Web site that was supposed to look like a spontaneous, grassroots effort by fans of its new PSP play station. The site was exposed, Sony shut it down. Wal Mart’s publicists bankrolled a site called Wal-Marting Across America, which posed as a journalistic travelogue compiled by a pair of intrepid souls – one of them an actual Washington Post photographer – who made their way cross-country to chronicle the lives and dreams of clean-living Wal-Mart folk.

Both cases were notable successes of Internet self-regulation; deceit was shamed off line. Nobody can say, though, how much tainted content goes undetected and, for that matter, whether it violates anything beyond basic trust. The Federal Trade Commission this month ruled on a complaint by Commercial Alert, the advocacy group, that so-called buzz marketing  in which shills pose as ordinary consumers to talk up products to the unsuspecting  is improperly deceptive.

But the FTC’s ruling was a flabby one, and it has no clear application to Internet shams. The average person has no way to know whether those passionate pseudonyms who upload videos to YouTube or commentary to Web sites are civilians expressing themselves or paid agents.

If regulation from outside is no help, maybe the solution is tougher regulation from inside. A group called the Media Bloggers Association, led by veteran blogger Robert Cox, is pushing for greater professionalization among blogmasters though training about legal and ethical obligations, which Cox is hopeful of offering through the Poynter Institute, a highly regarded mid-career journalists academy in St. Petersburg, Fla.

In time, Cox suggests, the result could be bloggers whose professional credentials warrant the same accreditation that mainstream journalists now qualify for.

They might also be less likely to succumb to the pleasing fiction that they can work at the same time as political operatives, Web entrepreneurs and independent commentators without compromising something of value.

What’s at stake here is huge. The Internet is a new world of media, fertile and endlessly receptive to communication needs of all kinds. It could very well become so overwhelmed by commercial and political stratagems, so cluttered and so untrustworthy that it winds up utterly useless for honest communication.

That possibility is not, as Herbert Hoover put it, “inconceivable:” It has already happened with local radio, and it has happened with the postal service, which has become primarily a conduit for junk mail.

The Internet can still be saved. But it won’t save itself.

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