How To Muckrake in Cyberspace Part I: Corporations


Did you know that PepsiCo runs the world’s largest restaurant conglomerate? That NBC owns the domain name brokaw.com? Or that a keyword search of “Texaco” and “black jelly beans” on a major search engine yields 462,510 documents?

Digging for dirt on corporations no longer requires stakeouts, break-ins, unscrupulous informers, or even trips to the library. As much soapbox as information storehouse, the Net can provide you with everything from SEC filings to bitter rants by ex-employees.

Follow the tips below, but remember: Many sources of information you find may be of dubious pedigree. Apply the same critical standards you would offline.

1. Go directly to the source.

You probably won’t find any secrets buried on the corporate home page, but sanctioned spin presents a nice counterpoint to the incriminating riff found elsewhere.

Take, for instance, Exxon’s official environmental policy and commitment to the land. When juxtaposed with the environmental and socioeconomic repercussions of proposed Exxon mining projects forecast by the people who live in targeted areas, Exxon’s devotion to the ecology comes up wanting.

2. Pay regular visits to progressive sites.

The Multinationals Resource Center is primarily a networking site, but its flagship publication, Multinational Monitor, is a well-researched, critical source of information on corporate activity in the developing world.

Alliance for Democracy is full of fire and brimstone and little else, but its reading list will keep you busy for months.

Corporate Watch, the slick new scion of The Transnational Resource and Action Center (TRAC) and The Institute for Global Communications (IGC), is still short on content — with the exception of the well-turned Greenwash Awards.

Project Underground douses mining, oil, and gas corporations with a mixture of sass and sober coverage.

Public Information Network publishes an excellent Directory of Transnational Corporations. By the time you’re done browsing, you’ll know everything up to and including the CFO’s cocktail of choice.

3. Get to know Uncle Sam.

Since May 6, 1996, all U.S. public companies have had to file securities documentation with the SEC‘s electronic data service, EDGAR. Boy, are we happy.

Do you feel like a “partner on the road to profitability”? The U.S. Department of Labor’s Corporate Citizenship Resource Center is definitely the Doris Day of government sites, but quotes by CEOs on the trials of surviving in the era of globalization are not to be missed.

The Federal Election Commission records all individual and corporate campaign contributions that exceed $200. A former employee of the nonpartisan Commission has put together a handy little search engine that tells you who or what contributed how much in the last election cycle.

Wanna make banks pay? The FDIC tracks industry legislation and consumer news.

4. Learn to love reading lists, bibliographies, and databases.

According to Stanford School of Law’s Securities Class Action Clearinghouse, 110 companies were sued in Federal Court between December 22, 1995 and January 8, 1997. Of the complaints filed in these cases, 70 can be found online. While most legal databases focus on judicial decisions, SCAC tracks cases from their inception — mercilessly.

Ka-Neng Au at Rutgers University should get a medal. His Resources for International Business Research is cheaper than grad school and more informative.

If the company you’re researching maintains any presence online — or even if it doesn’t — check the InterNIC for domain names it owns. This is how you discover that, between them, Microsoft and Wired own pretty much every potential space on the Web, and that Tom Brokaw better not entertain notions of switching networks.

The aptly named Washington Researchers, rather mysterious purveyors of “competitive and business intelligence products,” point to information resources on privately held companies and special strategies for gathering corporate intelligence, among other useful things.

Not even so-called “green companies” are safe from EnviroLink’s Corporate Dirt Archives. Warning: Rainforest Crunch will never taste the same.

WebActive, World Liberalism, Better World, Good Government Groups, and EnviroLink are good places to find more directories.

5. Spread a little money around.

Hoover’s Online charges a modest monthly fee for its company profiles, but it does offer a few freebies, including quarterly earnings and links to upcoming IPO and cyberstocks pages.

Most stocks pages charge for the real goodies. Standard & Poor is no exception, but it does offer some financial data on the companies that make up the S&P 500 Index. PR Newswire, Business Wire, Pawws, NASDAQ, and FinWeb are also worth a glance.

6. Listen to those most directly affected by corporate greed.

Indigeneous peoples, women, and residents of the southern hemisphere are disproportionately harmed by indiscriminate profiteering and the globalization of the economy. Hear what they have to say.

7. Take it all with a grain of salt.

Some of the best sites are little more than pseudo-academic diatribes with pretty pictures; we may never know what Elizabeth Shue’s breasts have to do with corporate crime, corporate welfare, and business criminals, or how koyaanisqatsi heralds the end of corporate governance.

But even harmless diatribes can incur TNCs’ wrath. After a protracted struggle with British Telecom over a domain name, agitator Ivan Pope was forced to pull down his tongue-in-cheek site cataloguing complaints against the telecommunications giant. We can’t show you Pope’s effort, but we can tell you where to protest Pacific Bell, aggravate American Express, madden McDonald’s, or track other Trademark Wars on the Web. As you’ll soon see, most corporate miscreants (Time Warner, General Electric, Disney/Cap Cities, and Westinghouse among them) like to keep it all in the family.

With a little luck, maybe your least favorite big business will be enshrined in the Museum of Corporate Folly.

What are your suggestions for muckraking spots on the Web? Let us know.