Down To Business: Nonpartisan? Let's Keep An Eye On The Watchdogs

Blue-ribbon interest groups are waxing impartial on everything from privacy to information policy and systems to online buying trends. But what's their real agenda?

Rob Preston, VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

November 10, 2006

3 Min Read

Beware the watchdog, "the independent" analyst, the advocacy group that professes to serve the public interest. Almost every last one of these so-called nonpartisans represents special interests. And they're loitering in every corner of the tech sector.

We see these committees of the great and good waxing impartial on everything from privacy to information policy and systems to online buying trends. Their soft points of view often are packaged as hard surveys and studies, and they're presented as gospel, as these people are the self-ordained voices of the masses.

A recent story by Reuters (the same news organization which opined that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter") proclaimed that the United Kingdom and the United States had become "surveillance societies" because, well, several watchdog groups had deemed them to be so in a recent report. The two groups that issued the report are Privacy International, whose two biggest financial backers are the Soros Foundation and the ACLU, and the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

Reuters went on to posit that "rights groups" are blasting governments worldwide (read: U.S. and U.K.) for using the war on terrorism to justify collecting data on citizens, tapping phone calls, conducting video surveillance, monitoring money transfers, and otherwise using information technology to invade our privacy. Adding supposed credence to the report's findings were statements from Britain's "independent information commissioner," Richard Thomas.

"Two years ago I warned that we were in danger of sleepwalking into a surveillance society," Thomas said. "Today, I fear that we are in fact waking up to a surveillance society that is already all around us." Ah, so Thomas' prediction was on the money--at least according to the privacy partisans he hired to prove his point.

In another advocacy adventure, on the eve of last week's elections, self-described voter rights champion Rob Stuart, president of Evolve Strategies, a communications company that serves "advocacy, nonprofit, and political clients," was pitching a "nonpartisan voter complaint system" that let anyone on any Web site that offers the tool report polling place improprieties to "voter protection groups" with the click of a button. Evolve Strategies clients include the ACLU and MoveOn. Are you keeping score?

Meantime, "civic association" Project Vote announced that it was anticipating problems in 33 "urban jurisdictions" in nine states, owing to alleged problems with electronic voting machines. Project Vote didn't articulate why it didn't expect those system problems to disturb voting in the nonurban districts in those states.

Maybe it's time to assemble a watchdog group to watch the watchdogs--or would that just enlarge our surveillance society?

Closer to the center of the tech industry, scores of vendors regularly commission third parties to skew research and product tests to validate their commercial interests. As InformationWeek reported in February as part of an exposé on industry practices, Microsoft's "Get The Facts" marketing campaign has made liberal use of "sponsored" research to tout the benefits of Windows over Linux, while analysts who serve IT buyers as well as sellers will stump for a particular technology approach (thin client computing, software as a service, virtualization, etc.) backed by the dollars of the vendor selling that agenda. The vendor affiliations aren't always made apparent.

Sometimes the researcher and product vendor are one in the same, as was the case last week when an outfit called Vendio released a survey which found that shoppers pay a whopping 44% less for consumer electronics products online than they do in conventional retail outlets. Vendio just happens to make an online comparison shopping toolbar. And it turns out, shockingly, that its analysis is less than aboveboard, as it's comparing average offline prices with the lowest online prices ... which is to say that it didn't do a comparison at all.

Rob Preston,
VP/Editor In Chief
[email protected]

To find out more about Rob Presto, please visit his page.

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About the Author(s)

Rob Preston

VP & Editor in Chief, InformationWeek

Rob Preston currently serves as VP and editor in chief of InformationWeek, where he oversees the editorial content and direction of its various website, digital magazine, Webcast, live and virtual event, and other products. Rob has 25 years of experience in high-tech publishing and media, during which time he has been a senior-level editor at CommunicationsWeek, CommunicationsWeek International, InternetWeek, and Network Computing. Rob has a B.A. in journalism from St. Bonaventure University and an M.A. in economics from Binghamton University.

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