CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Business Web sites that foster an aura of community trust may hold the key to the future of online politics.
A panel of Internet gurus gathered Friday at the fifth annual Votes, Bits & Bytes conference here, held by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School to discuss the impact of Internet business models on online politics.
The panelists said the most valuable lesson online campaigners may be able to garner from Web-based companies is that building a sense of trust remains at the center of winning loyalty from customers or political followers.
Among the panelists were Web luminaries including Esther Dyson, the former head of Web governance body the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, and Craig Newmark, the founder of classifieds and community site Craigslist. Dyson currently serves as editor at large for CNET Networks, publisher of News.com. Newmark works in customer service at Craigslist.
"The golden rule is really how people want us to operate," Newmark said. "They want business sites and political sites to adhere to our shared values of being fair with one another and treating each other with respect."
Joining the two Web celebrities on stage were Tod Cohen, deputy general counsel for government relations at online auctioneer eBay; Jonathan Zuck, the president of the Association for Competitive Technology, an IT industry group; and Debora Spar, a professor at Harvard Business School.
To Cohen, the reason why eBay has been so successful is linked inextricably to the morals expressed on the company's business card-size ideology outline. The values card, the brainchild of company founder Pierre Omidyar, includes reminders that people are generally good, that they usually treat others the way they wish to be treated, and that the company strives to foster an open, honest environment among its customers.
The satisfaction of eBay users is almost solely dependent on the integrity of other members of the site; consumers buy and sell goods based on an honor system that demands accurate descriptions of items for sale and the promise to pay for goods purchased. If eBay members didn't trust in this system, the company never would have made it, Cohen said.
Newmark echoed the sentiment of creating mutual faith between sites and customers. He said the success of Craigslist, an advertising-free classifieds site in which eBay now holds a 25 percent stake, could be channeled into Internet politics.
"It's an issue of moral values," Newmark said. "People want to know the truth and be treated fairly—that's the American dream."
Newmark acknowledged that people can still be misled by politicians' false promises, even after being fed a diet of legitimate ideals. But as with deceptive business practices, he believes the facts usually surface to expose those who are untruthful. Newmark added that to truly impress voters, politicians must make their online campaigns seem as if they are genuinely trying to engage people's opinions, not just attract their votes or donations.
Dyson observed that while the notion of building trust on the Web is key to furthering online politics, the utopian idea of a "global village" where people are completely upfront with each other is "implausible." However, she agreed that sites such as eBay and Craigslist make up a valuable template for politicians as they search for ways to attract supporters online.
"eBay itself is politics," Dyson said. "It changes how people view themselves in relation to institutions. The sense of empowerment is the same as in viewing politics online, and the idea of sharing feedback gives people a sense of empowerment. The major difference is that business is about controlling information, and politics is about disseminating information."
Hossein Derakhshan, also known as "Hoder," or the "Iranian blogger," discussed the rise of Web logs in his native country of Iran and the level of trust that people put in such sites as opposed to the government or media.
While Derakhshan has moved to Toronto, Ontario, he still operates a Web page dedicated to the politics of change in Iran. He said younger Iranians have used blogs to share information and opinions that would not be allowed to air via his country's state-controlled media outlets. However, he noted that just as the blogging phenomenon has taken off, Iranian officials have begun to target the sites.
"The Internet has become the most trusted medium (in Iran), over the press, television and everything else," Derakhshan said. "The government has total control of the media, and blogs can change this to become windows to the outside world. But the government has already become frustrated by the lack of control it has over blogs. They've begun telling people that these sites are funded by the CIA to undermine the (Iranian) regime, and people are being arrested."