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|One of the Internet’s great benefits is that it allows individuals and
organizations to disseminate information rapidly across national and
organizational borders. While this functionality can be abused to send
unsolicited commercial email and off-topic postings (“spam”) to thousands of
Usenet newsgroups, the fact remains that the Internet is the easiest and
least expensive medium to get information to large numbers of readers
Two recent controversies centering on Lotus Corporation’s Marketplace: Households database and the Clinton Administration’s “Clipper” encryption key escrow plan brought the Internet’s power as a medium for generating popular action into sharp relief. In both 1990 (when Lotus announced its database product) and 1993 (the Clipper announcement), public outcries and calls to action came swiftly once knowledge of the controversial efforts spread to the Internet. Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace investigates how individuals and organizations used the Internet to disseminate information about the two issues, persuade others to take action, and, in the former case, how Lotus seriously damaged its own cause by failing to appreciate the Internet’s particular rhetorical character, or ethos.
Gurak, an Assistant Professor in the University of Minnesota’s Scientific and Technical Communication Program, quite correctly notes that Internet users tend to take other users’ statement at face value. The Lotus debate, for instance, was initiated by an email from a concerned individual and quickly spread into grass roots movement without a central leader. While users’ concerns were genuine and much useful information was exchanged in the various newsgroups and over mailing lists, erroneous statements about such issues as the nature of information available from the database and the number of names included in the basic purchase price (only 5000 out of the 120 million available) made the debate much messier than it could have been.
The Clipper debate, by contrast, was largely initiated and coordinated by two public policy groups, Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The top- down nature of the discussion, Gurak notes, was succinctly illustrated by CPSR’s online petition against key escrow. The petition drew users to CPSR’s Web site and helped focus the protest by offering vetted information about the Clipper proposal and suggesting a number of methods (most prominently the petition) for users to make their opinions known to policymakers.
Gurak meticulously documents the two debates, citing specific Usenet postings and email messages to support her analysis. It was a nice change to read a serious treatment of online debates that didn’t resort to hand- waving and brief snippets of messages; rather, the author almost always quoted enough of the messages in question to establish the context of the statement.
Yes, I did say “almost” -- there’s one instance, in my opinion, where Gurak dropped the ball. The statement in question appears in Chapter 7 of Persuasion and Privacy in Cyberspace, entitled “Gender in Cyberspace”. The chapter as a whole is certainly a legitimate part of a serious analysis of online rhetoric, more so because one of the few voices supporting the government’s position on Clipper, Dr. Dorothy Denning of Georgetown University, is female. In the first part of the chapter, before a solid discussion of the differences in how men and women present their views on the Internet, Gurak focused on how Clipper opponents characterized Denning. While calling the head of Georgetown’s Computer Science department the “Wicked Witch of the East” does little to further the debate, I believe Gurak succumbs to analytical inertia when she lumps one of Electronic Privacy Information Center Director Marc Rotenberg’s statements in with the other blatantly sexist diatribes.
In what Gurak characterizes as “an otherwise respectful disagreement”, Rotenberg stated that he felt Denning was being “unnecessarily polly- annish” about the government’s intentions vis-a-vis Clipper. The Pollyanna of myth was a naive young girl who always saw the best in everyone and every situation -- the character is a popular reference in all venues when a speaker wishes to denote an opponent’s blindness to potential negative effects of a policy. To mention Rotenberg’s seemingly innocuous (in terms of gender bias) characterization of Denning’s arguments in the same breath as other more insulting remarks is, I feel, ill-advised.
Looking at the book as a whole, though, this one slip isn’t nearly enough to undo the fruits of Gurak’s labors: a solid, well-reasoned look at how online debates and community actions have taken developed in the past and might develop in the future. I’d recommend the book to anyone with an interest in how cyberspace opinion-building happens, though readers should always be on the watch for times when anyone, whether on the Internet or elsewhere, applies otherwise correct reasoning inappropriately.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.