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Consider the source

"Too much information, running through my brain. Too much information, driving me insane.

"Too much information, running through my brain. Too much information, driving me insane."

The Police wrote those lyrics in the early 1980s, a full decade before there was an Internet to fill in any gaps that might have existed in all the information they had in Sting's day.

Humanity has never had as much access to as much information as we enjoy with the Internet. Not just current events either, although you can find almost every major newspaper and news network on the Web - there are online dictionaries, encyclopedias, text books, libraries, and lessons. Pick a topic, any topic, and you can become an authority on it in half an hour.

The problem is that you really can't believe everything you read, no matter how artfully or professionally it is presented. You should always consider the source.

In a well-publicized study released last week by Consumers International, a confederation of more than 250 organizations in 115 countries, the Internet is batting around .500 when it comes to credibility.

In their examination of 460 well-travelled Web sites they found that 49 per cent of health and financial sites didn't advise users to consult professionals before acting on the information.

They discovered that about half of medical and financial sites failed to provide the credentials of the people and authorities providing advice and information.

About 39 per cent of sites that collected personal information did not have privacy policies protecting that data.

In addition, 62 per cent of sites included vague or unspecific claims that were not backed up by any hard data, studies, or independent review.

Some 30 per cent of sites did not include addresses or phone numbers.

Lastly, 60 per cent of sites hid their own sources - they do not tell consumers if their content is influenced by commercial interests or advertisers.

It's a fact of life. People and organizations want to sell you things, tell you things, and influence your opinions and patterns. Impartial, unbiased views are hard to come by these days.

Consumers who are constantly bombarded with sales pitches and solicitations from all sides, are generally suspicious of agendas, so it's understandable why Web sites would try to keep their agendas hidden.

It's also a subjective medium. There's no real censorship, and you don't need to be able to prove the validity of your information before you put it on a Web site. Even professionals like doctors and scientists who can provide proof to back up their statements and advice aren't required to pass it by a higher authority.

Complicating matters even further, there is a lot of contrasting, conflicting and contradictory information out there, even from trusted sources, because sometimes there is no definitive proof either way to answer many questions.

For example, some doctors will refer their patients to chiropractors while others do not. Some established financial analysts will argue that mutual funds are the way to go, while others will recommend commodities.

To remedy the situation, Consumers International is cautioning Web users to take the information and advice they get with a grain of salt, consider the source, and get a second opinion from a professional they trust.

Users must learn to question authority, and shouldn't be afraid to e-mail the Web sites and ask them where they got their information, and who their sources and backers are.

Consumers International is also making recommendations to governments to start cracking down on information posted on the Web, applying the same laws they do in the outside world and by requiring sites to use disclaimers whenever the information in a site is not officially acknowledged by a recognized source to be correct.

They could also require sites to post addresses and contact numbers, and reveal all sources and sponsorship that could influence the material posted on a site.

To read the preliminary report by Consumers International, visit their Web site at www.consumersinternational.org .

Their links section is especially useful, guiding you towards consumer sites in their various campaign areas - Food, E-Commerce, Health, Trade and Economics, Consumer Protection and Law, Sustainable Consumption, Public Utilities and the Environment.

Consumer WebWatch, a grant funded extension of the Consumers Union, is another good source on the topic on Internet credibility.

Buy Nothing Day

In response to our relentless consumer culture, and the relentless marketing of products that has made consumption part of our daily routines, Adbusters is sponsoring annual Buy Nothing Day on Nov. 29.

The day after the American Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year as people take advantage of the long weekend to do their Christmas shopping, and compensate for not buying anything the day before.

In its 11 th year, more than a million people take part in Buy Nothing Day, literally buying nothing - no gas, no food, no movie rentals. The premise is that we probably already have enough to eat and amuse ourselves at home for a whole day, but we're so conditioned to shop that we'll make up reasons to get in the car and make errands.

By Buying Nothing, Adbusters hopes to make us aware that we might be shopaholics, and to send a reminder to industry that consumers do have the power, should we choose to exercise it.

It's not just your post-graduate, anti-establishment types that are getting involved either. Last year Christian groups joined in, still mourning for the loss of the traditional day of rest to pressure from retailers for Sunday openings. Other faith groups, who see it as an excellent opportunity to bring families together, are also taking part.

You can find out more about Buy Nothing Day at www.adbusters.og .

While you're there, check out a short film about where terrorists really get their money, and preview a Buy Nothing Day commercial that AdBusters is attempting to get on television before Nov. 29.

If you buy into the whole philosophy, you might want to check out Buy Nothing Christmas at www.buynothingchristmas.org.




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