Net expectations

Much of the Internet hype that gushed forth in the 1990s is beginning to

wilt under financial and cultural realities. The predictions by hip technology

magazines that the Internet, with its free flow of information, would put

media conglomerates out of business and make government obsolete now look

naive and, well, wrong.

The State Department should consider those faulty predictions as it

begins to mold an Internet strategy that includes electronically disseminating

speeches, reports and analysis abroad in hopes of delivering the department's

view on trade, news events and foreign policy. The Internet, as many foreign

policy experts agree, has the potential to pry open previously closed nations

that control the media so that their citizens can learn about different

viewpoints. By doing so, the Internet can foment opposition to policies

or national governments in ways that traditional diplomacy cannot.

It's more than just a theory. The Environmental Protection Agency has

learned how powerful the Internet can be in building a grass-roots movement.

When the agency began posting its inventory on how much toxic pollution

companies release, EPA IT officials said residents in towns where some of

the biggest polluters were located began organizing to pressure the companies

to reduce pollution.

But to expect too much from the Internet may set State up for disappointment.

Just as big promises about how laptops in the classroom could improve education

have largely gone unfulfilled, so may promises that the Internet can be

the catalyst to stimulate foreign citizens to fight against policies or

governments State opposes.

Others warn that a pitfall waiting for anyone using the Internet is

that information can quickly be checked for factual errors, unnecessary

spin and incompleteness. Experts point out that if State fails to follow

those rules, it risks its reputation as a fair broker.

The Internet has the potential to greatly transform the way agencies

operate, but as most are finding in the commercial sector, the Net is just

one tool — albeit a powerful one — in an organization's toolbox. Keeping

that perspective may help State and other agencies form a realistic and

effective Internet strategy.

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