Virtual Consumer Sep-Oct 2009

Net benefit

Twenty years ago not many people had heard of the internet. It was already a big network but largely confined to academics and researchers. There were some outside the universities who were using on-line services like email and bulletin boards but they were on closed networks like Compuserve and America On-line (AOL).

Even in these early days some pioneering non-commercial and campaigning organisations saw the potential of these networks. Ethical Consumer was one of them, working in the early 90’s with the Manchester Host – part of the Poptel network – to make information about corporate behaviour available in a searchable form on line for researchers and activists.

The invention of the world wide web brought the net to a much wider audience. This was for two reasons – first because of the way it allowed users easily to jump between related pieces of information stored in different places, and second because it provided a standard for graphical display of information, liberating users from the typed commands and unbroken streams of text that made early networks difficult to use.

The web gave campaigning organisations a powerful new tool to get their message out. Unlike earlier networks the internet was free: once connected there were no costs related to the amount of information sent or received. This had its downsides. Networks like Minitel in France charged users for the time they spent on line and shared some of this revenue with content providers. This gave many small businesses and organisations an opportunity to earn money from information they put on line. The internet had no such mechanism – the only way to raise revenue from information on-line is by charging a subscription or through advertising, a problem that still hasn’t gone away for content providers like newspaper and journal publishers. The other downside of a free network was spam, now accounting for some 80% of email traffic. If it cost even a tiny amount of money to send an email (as with some of the rival networks before the internet became dominant), then there would be almost zero spam.

But being free helped the internet become dominant very quickly and led to the rapid spread of the web. It also laid the foundations for the second net revolution: the growth of interactive information services, or “web 2.0”.  This put new power in the hands of consumers: not only could they easily compare specifications and prices from rival products and suppliers but the growth of customer reviews and ratings on services like Amazon and the explosion in blogging made it harder than ever for big business to control the news. And as we all know, peer to peer filesharing had an even more devastating effect on the music industry. The instinctive reaction of big corporations to these threats was to fight back, attempting to silence bloggers or sue the filesharers. But most have had to face up to the fact that it won’t work. Famously bike lock manufacturer Kryptonite initially denied a post on Bikeforum in 2004 claiming that its lock could be opened in 15 seconds with a biro. But within days they had capitulated and agreed to change the lock design at great expense after the story flashed round the net. This ability to share information about the behaviour of large organisations and businesses has already made the net an even more powerful tool for not just for campaigners and activists but for anyone who cares about the way that governments and business behave. As the net spreads and as the tools for sharing information and collaborating become more sophisticated, the opportunities to call them to account can only grow.