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Web 2.0 and the New Corporate Watchdogging

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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 del.icio.us); 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 Wikipedia.org 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 -- of course -- HuffingtonPost.

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.