Compaq's Clout

If high-minded high-tech enthusiasts are to be believed, the Internet is an unrestricted zone for the free exchange of information. But Houston-based computer manufacturer Compaq -- the world's No. 1 PC maker, with $25 billion in revenue last year -- doesn't appear to share that vision. It recently used its clout as a major online advertiser (one industry analyst estimates the company spends $5 million on online ads each year) to quash criticism of its products.

In June CNET, an online publisher, quietly pulled a column by technology writer Bronwyn Fryer from one of its sites just a few hours after posting it. Fryer's column detailed a class-action lawsuit against Compaq alleging it knowingly sold defective computers. Two CNET sources tell Mother Jones that Compaq, which advertises with CNET, quickly called to complain, after which editor Christopher Barr pulled the column.

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Fryer says Barr told her that he pulled the column because he considered the story one-sided, but Fryer, who has also written for Newsweek and the New York Times, disagrees.

"I was dismayed," she says. "I knew I had carefully checked [the story]. I was simply reporting what the class action was." Barr denies that Compaq called.

Fryer is not the only victim of Compaq's heavy hand on the Internet. Charlotte, N.C., businessman Dale Johnson initiated the class-action lawsuit in 1997 after, he says, his Compaq Presario didn't work as advertised. When he criticized Compaq computers on an America Online message board hosted by Compaq technical support, his posts were deleted (as were his subsequent posts about the lawsuit).

"Compaq just did not want [Johnson] communicating with anyone," says Jeffrey Sprung, the attorney handling the suit. "They put themselves in the position of editors of a…public forum." Compaq declined to comment.

In June, Compaq stopped moderating its AOL message boards. And Fryer's column, substantially rewritten at her CNET editors' insistence, was re-posted in August. The new version discussed in broad terms how competitive pressures lead some PC manufacturers to rush products to market without adequately testing them first. Where were the class-action lawsuit and Compaq mentioned? In a few short paragraphs at the end, under the heading "When All Else Fails."

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