Sucheta Dalal :Person of the year 2006 caught in Web
Sucheta Dalal

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Person of the year 2006 caught in Web  

Jan 1, 2007

Until Time magazine declared “You” — as in citizen of the new digital democracy — the Person of the Year 2006, most people weren’t particularly worried that the world was divided into two types - those that are Net-savvy and have easy access to cyberspace and those who aren’t.

While praising ‘you’ for “seizing the reins of the global media” and populating the WorldWideWeb with ideas and opinion, Time also seems to indicate that we have moved forward from blogs to social networking. While blogs were about individuality and allowed you to post every un-edited thought, opinion or feeling on the Net, social networking is more collective — it is about sharing and reaching out. It is a concept that is alien even to many of those who see the Net as a fantastic communication and information tool and unmatched aggregator for getting the best deal on a wide range of products and services.

Google Zeitgeist’s (which means ‘spirit of the times’) list of top searches confirms Time’s views. Its top five searches in 2006 included four social networking sites or dispensers of music and video - bebo, Myspace, Metacafe and Radioblog in that order. Only World Cup managed to break into the top five.

“I am out of step with the spirit of the times’, said blogger atypicaljoe, speaking for many of us. Has Google sanitised the list to exclude pornography, which is among the biggest and most paying parts of Web-based commerce? The term “rebelde” or rebellious at number eight and Wikipedia at number six denote interesting trends. While there is a strong urge to seek out ways to rebel — denoting individuality — Wikipedia’s popularity reflects an equally strong urge to acquire, share and add to the information and knowledge base on a vast range of subjects.

Lest you get comfortable with that thought, Google’s top two news searches were for celebrities Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom. That too would be okay if they were preceded by the words ‘who is’. Cancer (not AIDS) at third and bankruptcy at eighth among news searches reflect important anxieties of our times. It is important to remember that Zeitgeist is an inaccurate description for lists that encompass only the world’s Net-using population, with a predominance of users under the age of 25. A search adjusted for demographics could indicate vastly different concerns. For instance, ‘phishing’ may have topped the list of searches by e-commerce users.

Personally, while I believe that the Internet is the biggest life-changing development in recent times, the celebration of its virtues often misses out on the dangers of its misuse. Fighting spam, viruses, phishing and piracy are costing billions of dollars to companies whose business depends of safe net-based transactions. These costs are only rising as criminals and businesses master the art of misusing the Net.

The Centre for Media and Democracy (CMD) lists Fake News among the big negative trend of 2006. It caught at least 140 instances of fake news that was packaged by PR firms and distributed to scores of television channels across the US, who were willing to air it for a price. These are genuine-looking news clips, think-tank discussions paid for by political parties or corporate houses to propogate views or market services. Some of these aimed at negating the hazards of environment destruction.

The Federal Communications Commission is now investigating such ‘fake news’ plants. The trend of passing off paid-content as genuine news is already well entrenched in India. Some top television and print media companies (definitely not this one) have been doing it regularly without attracting any public protest. Two other practices worming their way into India is to fund NGOs and non-profits to influence lawmaking in complex business such as telecommunications or issues such as environment protection.

Advertising Age of the US exposed how even a large retailer like Wal-Mart paid its PR firm’s employees to pose as “grassroots bloggers” and post messages bashing those who criticized Wal-Mart’s business practices.

At the everyday level, the use of Internet or SMS based polls to influence decisions and pick winners is extremely popular in India. Such polls are easily skewed and usually the most inaccurate way of gauging public opinion. But since they seem to reflect viewer opinion, they are actively and often controversially used by popular television shows such as Indian Idol and Nach Baliaye to pick winners.

Finally, a less discussed but disturbing trend is the manner in which scamsters have adopted and mastered technology tools to improve their efficiency in gypping people. lists ‘fake lottery’ as the biggest scam in the US in 2006. Tragically, it says that senior citizens were the biggest targets of this scam, although it operates in a big way on the Internet. This is followed by Phishing, by which identity thieves dupe people into parting with username and passwords to their bank accounts. Another version of this scam is ‘vhishing’, where people are asked to call a toll-free number for certain verification and duped into parting with account details.

The fourth and fifth on this list are the ‘negative options’ scam and the Nigerian 419 scam. The ‘negative options’ scam is one where legitimate companies bill you for an add-on service unless you specifically opt out of it. The offer itself is in fine print and designed to escape attention. Those who are angered by such negative option insurance offers will be glad to know that it is unequivocally billed a scam, even if leading institutions indulge in the practice.

The Nigerian scam is one where you are promised a fat commission (millions of dollars) to help in illegally transfer millions of Nigeria. The victim asked to cough up an ending stream of money to grease the transfer process. The wide spectrum of individuals that are regularly duped by this scam provides an eye-opening lesson in human nature and greed.

It is proof that the collective ‘you’, declared as Person of the Year by Time, is not without its sleazy side.

-- Sucheta Dalal