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Web 2.0 and the New Corporate Watchdogging
Joel Makower, 22 Jan 06

The online world has been aflutter of late with talk of "Web 2.0," a suite of tools and technologies that define the next-gen Internet. You likely already know them: Web-based applications (where the software lives online instead of in your computer); online content-sharing communities (like Buzznet or; content-sensitive advertising (Google AdSense); community rating systems (hotel reviews on TripAdvisor); personal publishing (blogs and podcasts); and group publishing (Wikipedia). (For more, see Tim O'Reilly's definitive essay on the topic.)

All good, geeky stuff, but what good will they do for those promoting peace, justice, and sustainability?

The full answer may be a while (though not a long while) in coming, but some hints have been seen lately from the activist community in the form of Web 2.0 tools and services focusing on corporate environmental and social responsibility. I believe they foreshadow a renaissance in activism, vanguards of a new level of corporate-watchdogging on a wide range of issues: transparency and accountability, environmental and social performance, green marketing (and greenwashing), political contributions, corporate governance, and others.

One of these tools is SourceWatch, recently launched by the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy. Its group-publishing tool, in which anyone can add or edit information, catalogs the disperse web of corporate voices trying to influence citizens -- specifically, the thousands of:

public relations firms, think tanks, industry-funded organizations, and industry-friendly experts that work to influence public opinion and public policy on behalf of corporations, governments, and special interests.

The idea, in large part, is to disclose and dissect the propaganda and PR spins that, the organizers believe, can distort truthfulness and transparency by companies and industry groups.

For example, a search for "nanotech" reveals that "While the PR marketers paid to over-hype biotech are preparing to do the same for nanotechnology, public interest activists . . . are raising precautionary concerns about the downside of the rapidly developing new technology." A series of links lead to articles from various sources as well as a critical analysis of a partnership between Dupont and the activist group Environmental Defense to "define a systematic and disciplined process that can be used to identify, manage and reduce potential health, safety and environmental risks of nano-scale materials across all lifecycle stages."

It's nothing you couldn't find with a basic Google search, but it's in context here -- and it represents the combined wisdom of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of contributors.

Wiki's aren't without risks and challenges, of course. Late last year, for example, someone posted a fictitious article on falsely implicating a journalist in the Kennedy assassinations. It illuminated the limits and liabilities of such group publishing. But the larger community often polices itself to ferret out such abuses. Whether SourceWatch will self-police remains to be seen, but the potential benefits -- the ability of a disperse community to maintain a robust and accessible encyclopedia of corporate activities -- seem to far outweigh those risks.

Another new venture is Corporate Watchdog Radio, a twice-monthly podcast on "corporate and environmental responsibility as it affects the financial marketplace," hosted by journalist Bill Baue and attorney Sanford Lewis. Launched in November, it chronicles corporate misdeeds and activist campaigns. The program, as the producers explain:

exposes corporate wrongdoing and applauds businesses that do the right thing. The program investigates how corporate malfeasance can adversely impact the well-being of people and the planet, and commends companies making healthy financial returns by supporting social and environmental progress.

It's a talky format -- conversation between the hosts, interviews with experts, etc. -- reasonably well produced. (Think NPR circa 1980.)

Both of these endeavors join a growing list of corporate-watchdogging blogs, such as Critical Mass, Mother Jones, and HuffingtonPost (to which I am an occasional contributor).

By themselves, none of these projects is particularly revolutionary. Rather, it is their combined efforts -- and the potential they represent -- that's of interest. As wiki's, podcasts, blogs, and no doubt other techno-tools grow and flourish, they represent a new level of activism -- one that promises to move beyond the limiting stovepiped agendas of individual environmental, social justice, and corporate accountability groups. As information about companies from a myriad of sources and interests is amassed, synthesized, and broadly disseminated, it will enable those that haven't traditionally communicated or collaborated to connect the dots about companies' social and environmental promises and performance. And that could put new juice into the movement aimed at getting companies to say what they do, and do what they say.

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I recently wrote an essay in wiki form that analyzes just this question -- how can we use these Web 2.0 tools to create more than just an more interactive web, to to foster social change?

Posted by: Josh on 22 Jan 06

Thanks for flagging this, Joel. You wrote: "Wiki's [sic] aren't without risks and challenges, of course. Late last year, for example, someone posted a fictitious article on falsely implicating a journalist in the Kennedy assassinations. It illuminated the limits and liabilities of such group publishing. But the larger community often polices itself to ferret out such abuses."

In the case in question, the "larger community" in fact did just that. Wikipedia advocates will argue that the distributed community will do a far better job of fact-checking than traditional encyclopedists would; Brittanica I'm sure maintains just the opposite. (I lean toward wiki, but recognize the hazard of the reader who may encounter a bogus posting before it gets fixed, and wander off ill-informed.)

Posted by: Gil Friend on 22 Jan 06

The launch of SourceWatch was actually in January 2003, which isn't very recent in Internet time. It was originally known as Disinfopedia.

Posted by: Stephen Gilbert on 22 Jan 06

Yah these new 'governments' 'watchdogs' of Web 2.0 seem to have superceeded traditional local governments and hopefully will not be just web based either.

Posted by: Mark on 23 Jan 06

I think these types of social collaboration tools will eventually be ENORMOUSLY useful in creating meaninful incentives for corporations to reassess their cost-benefit analyses when considering social impications of their policies and practices. The start will be specific one-issue tracking like SourceWatch. (granted, the web o' spin is a broad issue, but it's still a single issue)

The real power will come when leading activist organization and their collaborative applications get designed to feed a personalizable aggregation site that can translate into the daily consumption decisions of consumers and flow out to influence a broader segment of the population--less commited but concerned enough about a cluster of issues to change their buying behavior...IF current information is EASILY accessible from trusted sources.

Posted by: Kathryn on 23 Jan 06

Bernard Dolan and Sage Francis have a very good corporate watch site called KnowMore, which incorporates WikiMedia and phpbb forums. (Disclosure: my company put the site together.)

Posted by: Jon Lebkowsky on 23 Jan 06

Consider the debacle about US-gov-data-mining but Google-said-no although everyone-else-said-yes. Unfortunately all this stuff, as usual, can be used for nasty purposes as well as good ones. "They" have near-infinite resources and can (try to) roll over dissent, while we have to expend energy alerting everyone to the power grab.

My point being that activist use of server-based goodies has to include loud warnings about insidious use of the technology as well as all the great potential.

Posted by: quixote on 23 Jan 06

Here's another Web 2.0 tool, at least in beta version -- this one from Greenpeace:

Posted by: Joel Makower on 23 Jan 06

The first comment / question ("how can we use these Web 2.0 tools to create more than just an more interactive web, to to foster social change?") is the subject of a lot of work we're doing over here at CompuMentor, and is exactly at the center of -this- conference. In fact, Jon pointed to it earlier. I guess my question is - is the NetSquared venue a helpful place to have that kind of conversation, or do people see it more as a showcase site and the real tough questions are being asked elsewhere?

Posted by: Greg Beuthin on 24 Jan 06



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