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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Finding Jewels Amid the Junk

In his resounding rejection of the Communications Decency Act, a U.S. law that aimed to limit "obscene" or "offensive" Internet content, U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens described the Internet as a new embodiment of the most cherished traditions of free political expression. "Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox," he wrote. "Through use of the web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer."

Lofty principles aside, most of the "spam," or junk e-mail that I get from "exploders," contains commercial sales pitches for various kinds of pornography. The online marketplace of ideas is admittedly something of a jungle littered with material that is often boring, irrelevant, distasteful or downright weird. Stevens' soapbox analogy rings true -- you can find tens of thousands of people proclaiming their political beliefs on personal homepages -- but amid the general din I tend to doubt whether anybody listens or notices. In many cases we're probably better off that they don't.

Still, you can find high-quality commentary and political discussion on the net, although it tends to accumulate around higher-profile web-zines, which showcase and package various ideas much like their print brethren. The traditional newspapers and magazines central to various policy debates themselves now often have web sites that broadcast their print content online, but the new journals of commentary that have sprouted in the Internet's unpredictable soil are more interesting to examine.

Slate (, backed by Microsoft and run by former New Republic editor Michael Kinsley, emerged as one of the earliest and most hyped entrants into the web policy and commentary genre. While I can't escape the feeling that Slate hasn't lived up to Bill Gates' commercial hopes, I like the basic quality and feel, which resembles an extended, hyptertext-enriched New Republic, one of my favorite magazines. Freed from the strictures of a print production schedule, Slate also includes daily summaries and comparative "spin" analysis of the headline stories in major U.S. newspapers and magazines. In an interesting innovation, Slate presents multiround interactive "debates" between prominent figures, although the interface appears to work only in MS Internet explorer, which can be annoying for Netscape partisans. Still, the browser switch is worth the effort because the written commentary is of uniquely high quality.

Among other 'zines that feature incisively written pieces, Feed ( offers a wider variety of cultural and general interest features in addition to hard-core politics. Other good examples are Word ( and Salon (

Certified political junkies may never be able to escape eVote (, a more-or-less nonpartisan 24-hour political news service with an extensive array of commentary and features. In addition, eVote boasts online electronic polls, which claim to approach the accuracy of their cousins from Gallup.

Intellectual Capital (http://www.intellectu chooses a public policy issue every week and dissects it in depth, drawing on material from prominent contributing editors across the political spectrum. Links to related Internet resources accompany each article, and IC also shares content with its sister web service,, at which gathers, archives and highlights material from more than 100 prominent think tanks.

IC makes pioneering efforts to exploit the Internet's unique potential by giving readers the opportunity to append their own commentary to the end of each article and by organizing online chat rooms with prominent public figures such as American Civil Liberties Union president Nadine Strossen and IC editor Pete du Pont. According to publisher Diane Atwood, by the end of each weekly issue's run, more than 60 percent of the content consists of reader responses, and the quality tends to be quite good.

This week, IC focuses on "The Future of Russia," and has used the occasion to launch a Russian-language edition mounted here in Moscow at http://www.intellectual and

Public policy commentary remains relatively rare on the Russian web, with the exception of the Moscow Libertarium (

html), which presents an enormous library of scholarly papers and other texts related to liberal, libertarian and democratic ideals. Russian ?migr?s have been somewhat more active in creating commentary 'zines, such as the Baltimore-based Forum at, tied to the popular Vestnik print magazine published by the Russian diaspora in the United States.

For collected Russia-related news and commentary in English, the e-mail based Johnson's Russia List stands apart as a unique and often fascinating resource. As a personal hobby, David Johnson, research director at the left-leaning Center for Defense Information in Washington, collects and e-mails dozens of Russia-related articles from U.S. media and translated Russian press to his community of subscribers every day. This activity would appear to be a walking copyright violation, but that doesn't stop nearly everybody in the community of journalists and scholars following Russia from subscribing. Interesting arguments and discussions often erupt, from tirades by Chubais-haters to debates between academics such as Michael McFaul and Jerry Hough. To join, simply send a message to

welcomes any tips on interesting web sites or questions concerning the Internet for response in future editions of this column. Fick is co-founder of Samovar Internet Consulting, LLC. Web: e-mail: fax: 233-2261