An elite few - newspapers, television networks, major corporations - used to control the bulk of mass communication. But with the spread of the Internet, more and more people are gaining direct access to unfiltered information of all kinds. As VOA's Sean Maroney reports, businesses are recognizing this trend, and they are trying to take advantage of it.
There are more than 100 million people on the online social networking site MySpace.com. Users cross borders and span continents to meet and swap information about just about anything.
The Internet's top search engine, Google, says it averages more than 100 million searches per day. People around the globe are literally asking billions of questions each month.
Information has always been a commodity in the business world. Now, more consumers have access to it as more of them log online.
But Google CEO Eric Schmidt warns that because there is so much information, and so many people sharing it, some businesses are shouting to be heard.
"Every piece of information on the Internet can be thought of as a move in a game," he said. "You do not like some information - spread some misinformation."
Earlier this year, computer software giant Microsoft was criticized when it took steps to polish its image. Critics complained that the company planned to pay for entries about itself on the free-content encyclopedia Wikipedia.org, known for its volunteer staff.
Microsoft says that is not true. A company representative told VOA that Microsoft simply offered to pay an outside expert to correct entries about the company on Wikipedia.
Google CEO Schmidt says the criticism surrounding Microsoft is a product of the new business information world.
"There might be some businesses who want to affect some outcome, who might spread some misinformation - let us call it 'bizinformation,'" he said. "All of a sudden, information takes on power and partially false or completely false information is hard to distinguish in this new world."
Governments recognize this, too, and some are cracking down on what they do not like.
A recent report by the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders says 52 people are imprisoned in China for online criticism of government policy. The report says 10 people are held in other countries for the same offense.
Google and other Web sites have been criticized for censoring their services to operate in countries such as communist China.
But as Internet access spreads to more remote areas, Schmidt says information will empower more people.
"They are going to discover that their governments are not treating them very well," he said. "They are going to discover that the other town has better resources, better healthcare, better education, so forth. They are going to be annoyed."
He says this empowering will force companies to change how they manage information in their approach to consumers and their governments.