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Do we need or want full disclosure from web sites, and will it work?

By theR in Internet
Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 06:37:10 PM EST
Tags: Internet (all tags)
Internet

Consumer Reports has a short article in their January, 2001 issue concerning public disclosure on websites. The article points out problems with numerous types of sites, especially ones containing medical advice and investor-oriented content. One of their proposed remedies to this is a three-year "Web Credibility Program" that the Consumers Union, the parent of Consumer Reports, is launching sometime this year.


First, let me say that I have not yet determined what to make of this idea but I think it may be a good topic of discussion. The Consumers Union is a not for profit organization that works to protect consumers in the US. The following is from the Consumer Reports About Us web page:

Consumer Reports Online is published by Consumers Union, an independent, nonprofit testing and information organization. Since 1936, CU's mission has been to test products, inform the public and protect consumers. We are a comprehensive source for unbiased advice about products and services, personal finance, health and nutrition, and other consumer concerns. Our income is derived solely from the sale of Consumer Reports (in print and online) and other services, and from nonrestrictive, noncommercial contributions, grants, and fees.

The article begins by pointing out problems with disclosure to consumers about certain sites. Some of the problems include:

  • Sites that pay to have a high ranking in search engine results but do not disclose this to search engine users.
  • Medical sites found by federal officials to have questionable information about major diseases without proper sources of the information.
  • Investor-oriented sites where users are not told that so-called experts talking up an oppurtunity are actually being paid to say what they are saying.

Obviously, most people experienced with the internet know to take everything that they see or read with a grain of salt because of the nature of the internet. But will this program, or something like it, benefit, hurt, or do neither?

The program will be funded by three organizations to the tune of $4.8 million. The organizations funding the Web Credibility Program are the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Knight Foundation, and the Open Society Institute.

The program has three main objectives:

  1. Investigating business practices of web sites and reporting the results to the public.
  2. Developing disclosure standards for the internet.
  3. Making consumers more aware of disclosure issues.

I am interested to find out everybody else's take on this. My questions are, do we need this? Do we want this? Is it a good or bad idea? Is this the correct way to implement an idea like this? What will the results of this be, and will the results matter?

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Poll
Do you believe everything you see on the internet?
o Of course. Why wouldn't I? 7%
o I give most sites the benefit of the doubt. 26%
o No, I need sources and evidence to be convinced. 42%
o I will never believe. 0%
o It doesn't matter whether or not I believe it. 14%
o I avoid the internet at all costs. 8%

Votes: 56
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o the Consumers Union
o Consumer Reports
o About Us
o The article
o the Pew Charitable Trusts
o the Knight Foundation
o the Open Society Institute
o Also by theR


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Do we need or want full disclosure from web sites, and will it work? | 5 comments (4 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Take Consumer Reports with a grain of salt (4.00 / 2) (#2)
by djkimmel on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 06:29:58 PM EST

Some people don't make out Consumer Reports to be the "comprehensive source for unbiased advice about products and services" that they make themselves out to be.

Take a look at this page at Allpar.com which critiques the Consumer Reports reviews of car reliability.

Don't get me wrong, Consumer Reports can be good stuff, but you shouldn't rely on a single source.
-- Dave

Car recommendations. (4.00 / 1) (#4)
by theR on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 07:38:26 PM EST

Yes, I agree that Consumer Reports should be used as one of several references. For example, one problem with the car repair reviews is that they are based on surveys to the magazine subscribers. As people probably know from user reviews of products on the web, these do not always tend to be accurate. I, personally, would rather hear what mechanics have to say than the people that own the cars.



[ Parent ]
Consumer Reports, my view. (5.00 / 1) (#3)
by theR on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 07:27:42 PM EST

I agree with this comment that Consumer Reports is not the end all or be all in regards to rating things, not just cars. There are several reasons I see for this, and some of these reasons may hurt this attempt by them to bring more accountability to the web.

One problem is that they do so many things. They can't be experts at everything because of the numerous types of things they rate and do. When I was the manager of a retail shoe store, I used to laugh at people who came in and just wanted to buy the running shoe rated best by Consumer Reports. This is because they would simply rate a shoe as being either good or bad. The problem with doing that is, one running shoe can be great for certain people and terrible for others. They are a little too broad in their recommendations and evaluations.

This problem could definitely manifest in the program the story is about. Will they hire or contract people who know about the subject matter? Maybe they have people on staff already who are qualified, or they think are qualified, to evaluate things like this. Maybe they will get someone to train the people involved in this program.

I think their heart is in the right place but I doubt their knowledge and skill when it comes to something analyzing something that moves at such a fast pace, i.e. the internet. When people would come in looking for running shoes, the models listed in Consumer Reports had often been discontinued months before the ratings for those items were published. How are they going to make sure that websites are held accountable for disclosure?

Another problem I see is in regards to differing medical opinions. As long as a site is clear why a medical opinion is what it is and cite sources if there are any, I would not like a project like this to put pressure on web sites with non-standard medical opinions. Differing opinions need to be out there, if for nothing else than to make the established opinion look that much more solid.

I think goals 1 and 3 are reasonable and viable goals. I think number 2 will be much more difficult. Anytime someone wants to impose standards on media and/or technology, it's an uphill battle. I believe it probably should be, too, because there are too many web sites that are so non-standard it would be a case of significant numbers of exceptions to whatever standard they come up with.



It's like the SCOTUS, actually. (4.00 / 1) (#5)
by aphrael on Thu Dec 14, 2000 at 10:24:19 PM EST

Sites that pay to have a high ranking in search engine results but do not disclose this to search engine users.

Yuck. This would seem to be the fault of the search engine, rather than the site per se --- and it's hard to tell how you'd even *know* if nobody told you. Maybe it could be determined by reading company financial reports and cross-referencing, but that's a lot of work; otherwise, unless the search engine's software is open-sourced, how would anyone know?

How widespread is this practice?

Investor-oriented sites where users are not told that so-called experts talking up an oppurtunity are actually being paid to say what they are saying.

Isn't this illegal? I would expect the SEC to be taking a close look at online investment sites in the near future ... although the fact that Bush won may lead to a less interventionist SEC and FTC, which might mean that this sort of investigation waits 4-8 years, at which point it may be too late ...

But will this program, or something like it, benefit, hurt, or do neither?

The only argument I can see for it *hurting* the net is if it reduces the credibility of the net in the eyes of the average person so much that it causes people to not want to place information on the net because there's no audience there and/or because being on the net will serve to discredit the information. I think that's fairly unlikely ... hell, nobody trusts "the media", but it hadn't gone away the last time I checked. :{

I can see it helping if things could evolve so that there was some set of trusted sites (sort of like trusted users here) who had a history of being reliable, as set against a bunch of other sites whose veracity was more open to question. This would in time allow the trusted sites to serve as a benchmark against which the other guys are compared --- and there might even be an economic incentive to remain a trusted site.

The trouble is, *something* has to be trusted enough to confer trusted status on those sites --- and that's the real question: can some sort of certification agency get the name-recognition and the credibility needed to then transfer its own authority to sites it has certified?

Do we need or want full disclosure from web sites, and will it work? | 5 comments (4 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
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