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The Internet as us
By Scott Bradner
One of the early dreams about the Internet seems to be approaching reality. The Internet is more democratic than anyone dared to hope for a few years ago.
There has been a lot of focus over the last few years on the reported concentration of Internet content providers. It seems like we get another report every few months lamenting the fact that most Internet content comes from the top 10 or 20 sites. Frequently the commentators draw a parallel with the growing concentration of content providers in more traditional media such as newspapers, radio and TV. These laments are accurate but they ignore some important trends.
The most important development in Internet content may have been the launching of Google News (http://news.google.com/) a while back. This web site, still tagged as being in beta, full of automatically generated news summaries and links to news articles has provided a window on the 'Net at least as important as the basic Google (and other) web search sites. According to the web site Google News continuously scans 4,500 news sources and feeds the results to a program to figure out what stories might be of interest. The note at the bottom of the screen reminds the readers that: "The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program." This sometimes results in some strange stories being headlined but seems to always result in stories from all over the world being featured on the main page. This morning there were 32 main stories. Of those 8 were from non-US sources and only 5 were from the big news wires such as Reuters and Bloomberg. The rest of the stories were from a collection of big and small US newspapers and TV stations. In addition, each of the main stories had links to hundreds, and in a few cases thousands, of related stories. This is unfiltered news at its best.
Almost as an important development has been developing an understanding the work of individual Internet users. According to a new report by the Pew Internet and American Life Project almost half of the adult (18 and over) Internet users are Internet publishers of one kind or another. (http://www.pewinternet.org/reports/toc.asp?Report=113)
When the technology of the World Wide Web was first developed in the early 1990s there was a hope that it would permit the average Internet user to also be a content publisher and to bypass the filter that regular content publishers must be by definition. For a while this seemed to be the case but quickly the focus shifted to big commercial web sites and the role of the individual began to fade, at least in public perception. The fact that many broadband Internet service providers started to prohibit their customers from running their own web sites did not help all that much. But the Pew study shows that the individual is out there on the 'Net (and thus findable by Google & Yahoo).
In spite of the worries of many people, and the efforts of some governments, the Internet continues to be an engine for democracy. The Pew report and Google News are examples of what this means.
disclaimer: Much of Harvard sees itself as an engine for democracy but your mileage may vary. The above is my view.