article: Commercialization of the Internet

TRUTH FOR SALE – THE COMMERCIALIZATION OF THE INTERNET

Commentary Broadcast on KPBX Spokane Public Radio 3/23/00 By Lester A. Shepard

The shift from military to economic power has been one of the major salutary developments of the past fifty years. Certainly, we continue to witness regional flare-ups taking a tragic toll in human lives, but on the whole they seem to represent the aftershock of outdated religious and ethnic feuds: their scope is limited and their effects are marginal. The cold war itself, which could have resulted in an apocalypse, has given way to comparatively harmless bickering.

Our globe is fast becoming one vast marketplace. An altogether new type of visionary is making their entry on the scene: the corporate leader and management consultant who preach that it is the mission of business to usher in an age of universal brotherhood. The law of supply and demand stands for the moral commandment providing the cornucopia.

The case of the Internet serves as a paradigm. It was in large measure conceived by academic research scientists. They were instrumental in enabling private industry to transform research results into a broad infrastructure. One aspect of the trend away from nonprofit resources was that several search engines, originally operated by universities, became commercial ventures. Search engines, as well as portals and browsers, similarly business-owned, are trusted to furnish reliable and objective information. Some of the engines are remarkably even-handed, but generally an erosion is noticeable whereby indexing and prominent ranking favor commercial sites.

Conversely, pro bono, independent, exclusively informative sites that once were abundant on the web are ever harder to find. Even amateur webmasters bannerize their pages. In fact, official college websites have started to carry ads. Book reviews, fan clubs, medical advice, maps turn out to be more or less camouflaged plugs for publishers, video sales, drug manufacturers, travel agents… – the list is nearly endless – while genuinely helpful sites get kicked further and further down the search-engine totem pole, if they get displayed at all.

It would be an exaggeration to claim that academia is now walking hand in hand with corporate interests, yet the two are intertwined. The contributions of business enterprises, whether to education or legislative campaign coffers, are considerable. Whereas educational endowments have a laudable side, such donations are hardly altogether altruistic. Trade is indispensable to social life, but society ought not be reduced to commerce. Cultural tradition holds that some things cannot be bought or sold. Above all, the one thing that should not be for sale is truth.

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