"The Internet makes things easier to find out but harder to learn what we don't know," he said. "We can't verify sources."

Continued from Part 1:

            Even when information is clearly valuable, it raises ethical concerns. Neal Richman of the University of California at Los Angeles thought he could help neighborhood groups struggling to reclaim streets plagued by abandoned buildings after he and his colleagues discovered that UCLA's access to sophisticated database mapping technology could locate and track nuisance properties owned by the city of Los Angeles better than the city itself could. The discovery led to a working relationship and has spurred the city to better attend to rundown or derelict properties.

But that association, Richman said, also led to concern about conflicts of interest and what information the university should be allowed to use, as well as questions about whether surveillance was an unintended consequence of mapping through technology.

"Who owns public data?" Richman asked. "Universities want it for historical significance. Is digital data ephemeral? On the flip side, should government get the data? There are privacy and ethical concerns."

            But the conference also highlighted some Internet successes. Graduate student Jesse Drew of San Francisco State University told the audience his study of unions showed the World Wide Web had proved a valuable tool for organized labor. Members could track the status of contract negotiations on the Internet and use e-mail to communicate around the globe.

A group of Liverpool, England, dockworkers used online communication to block the unloading of a nonunion-loaded ship by e-mailing fellow union members in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Tokyo. The ship owner finally gave up and sold the ship and its contents in Tokyo.

Technology's potential to respond to public concerns was also driven home by the absence of one of the conference's keynote speakers, Veran Matic, whose Belgrade radio station, B292, was shut down by Yugoslav police two days before Matic's scheduled address.

            Matic's original station, B92, came to international prominence during anti-government protests of 1996-97 when another governmental shutdown resulted in Matic and his staff using the Internet to distribute news broadcasts. In this latest shutdown, police took all computer equipment from the station. However, videotape of anti-government protests continued to be broadcast -- on the Web. The events in Yugoslavia underscored a symposium position that information technology is vital to an informed public. Matic's statement to the symposium addressed the importance of new technologies in resisting repression in Yugoslavia.

The Internet can also help strengthen communities and provide cutting-edge solutions to age-old problems, according to one panel.

Joan Fanning of N-Power, Technology Assistance for Nonprofits, a Seattle company that matches information technology expertise with nonprofits in need, described a New York group that developed software to produce orders of protection for victims of domestic violence. Women who might be too intimidated by appearing in court instead can answer a series of questions via computer to generate an order that can be printed out and taken to court for filing, she said.

            Fanning also cited a regional care association that delivers health care to migrant workers in the Northwest via a uniform approach to running clinics. Among advantages are online dermatological databases that help in diagnosing skin problems for people who work in pesticide-covered fields.

            Environmental groups have used the Internet to help purchase lands for conservation and to lobby governmental groups through online post cards, Fanning said.

            Panel members also cited the creation of online employment and education programs targeted toward urban neighborhoods and low-income communities.

BERKSHIRE PUBLISHING GROUP: The American News Service (ANS), founded by Frances Moore Lappé and Paul Martin DuBois in 1995, was a project of the Center for Living Democracy. The content of these articles, which ranges from environmental action to food pantries, remains extremely relevant. Because these articles can be of great value to researchers who are studying a wide range of community issues, Berkshire Publishing, with the kind permission of Frances Moore Lappé, is also making the full archives available online, free of charge.