Sunday, March 4, 2007

Best Buy's website practices scrutinized

Consumer groups and state attorneys general are looking into allegations that Best Buy sales associates have sometimes used a corporate intranet site, a look-alike of their public website, to decieve customers looking for sales that were promoted online.

The news has generated a great deal of interesting discussion, much of it in support of Best Buy's ethics, at Slashdot and at TechDirt. My goal here is neither to criticize or defend Best Buy, but to look at a deeper issue: the unreliability of web documents.

If I were ever to shop at Best Buy (something I studiously avoid doing anyway) and bring a printed flier from that Sunday paper's supplement with me, it's unlikely the adolescent sales associate would whip out a rival flier, listing the price of the plasma display at $995 instead of $855.

A printed document is an objective reality, a "thing" in the original sense of that word -- something two separate minds can meet over and agree to its existence. The text on the page cannot be edited, censored or deleted without leaving a mark of the alteration.

In the incidents under investigation, the associates produced an alternative web page with different prices, a page with greater claim to accuracy because it was, supposedly, more recent than the one the shopper had seen at home. There was no physical record of a change, or even evidence that this wasn't the same page the shopper had read earlier.

Hypertext is mutable, quicksilver, evanescent. The short history of the Web is already full of cases where a corporation or government agency posted information online that later proved embarassing to it and that was hastily deleted, with denials that the material had ever existed at all.

Print is tangible, permanent, agreed upon. It points an accusing finger at whoever dares tamper with its meaning or its existence. That's why, whenever important matters are at stake, we need the assurance of ink and paper, rather than hypertext, to defend the truth.

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