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.

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.”

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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