For a brief, shining moment it looked as though the Internet might emerge as our storybook hero, ending the reign of the old media conglomerates. For too long our radios bound us to music as shiny and sterile as a corporate board room, our cinema to films as empty of soul as they were full of silicon and cliche, and our newspapers and televisions to the news that Wall Street wanted us to see. OJ Simpson news. Princess Diana news. JFK Jr. news. But not environmental racism news, not corporate welfare news, and certainly not media consolidation news. And during the end days of radio, print, and television, we grumbled that the quality of our culture — politically, socially, creatively — was declining, but were unable to say exactly why. Through a corporate filter, we lacked the perspective necessary to identify (at any mass level) the role that a highly concentrated media plays in sedating a vibrant democracy.
Then came the Internet. The infinite, diverse, honest new medium that proved that there was more to America than television and radio might have indicated. Millions of websites went up, covering topics from the role of money in the political process to role-playing in the boudoir, and everything in between. Providing an unprecedented tool of communication, the Net emancipated the potential previously constricted by lack of access to a viable outlet. Nonprofit and advocacy groups found better methods to communicate their issues efficiently, independent artists found a chance to be received, and alternative news journals found audiences eager to find out about the stories casually omitted by NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN.
But the old media giants, presumed down and out, have gotten their second wind just in time for the transition from dial-up modems to broadband (high-speed Internet access). This shift in technology comes with some vital changes in policy that could radically transform the democratic online space into yet another proprietary domain, dominated by the conglomerates.
There were rules in the dial-up age, “common carriage” rules that applied specifically to telecommunications services. Any company that wanted to provide Internet service would be entitled to do so, all information would be equal, and no entity could discriminate against any other — echoes of democratic principles broken too frequently in people-space. It was these rules that laid the foundation for a decentralized community where the AOLs could not slow down or remove aolsucks.com, and the Microsofts could not discriminate against Linux providers, no matter how badly they might wish to do so. These rules, often referred to as “open access” requirements, do not apply to the various forms of broadband Internet service that do not go over phone lines — cable, satellite, and wireless.
Without the support of such constructive principles, digital content would be controlled by whoever owns the conduit, be it AOL-Time Warner, Comcast, Charter, or any other. Everything — from what we are able to view to the speed which we may download files — would be at the mercy of the Internet Service Provider. And thus, we should not be surprised when the amorphous Internet of information is molded and trimmed, stamped with the corporate seal of approval, and passed back to us for consumption.
We are at a crucial point in the development of a democratic and diverse media. All the good that has come from the Web thus far is history. Whether or not it will be the future remains yet to be determined, either by the courage and persistence of activists, or by the coffers of the old media behemoths.
Dawn of the Closed Internet
As more of the population gains access to computers, as broadband continues to roll out, and as Interactive Television takes its place in living rooms throughout the country (as many analysts predict), it appears that within the next ten years the Internet in a variety of forms will become the default medium. It will be the first place people turn to for their news, their music downloads, their video-on-demand. The word “Convergence” — the grail of the media conglomerates — is used in industry circles, representing the merging of VCRs, stereos, TVs, and PCs into one very marketable whole. And if you think that Sony and AOL-Time Warner and Disney et al aren’t working day and night to privatize this new system, think again.
The shift to broadband not only brings higher-speed service, but a new set of rules that the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will play under. In the dial-up age, open access requirements shielded the development of 7,000 ISPs, most of which are independent businesses that offer localized services to small subscription bases. The diversity in ISPs gave assurance that there would always be an abundance of online ramps. With cable modems, however, the owner of the wires is under no obligation to allow other ISPs access to their “pipes,” and therefore gains an essential monopoly in their market. As telecommunications companies are simultaneously pushing for the elimination of their open access requirements, the number of ISPs is expected to dwindle to only a handful of the largest and most powerful.
With our new Internet experience being filtered through the giants of the satellite, telecom, and cable industries, the future of the web as a friendly territory to alternative culture is doubtful. In 1999, Cisco, a company that produces wires for cable systems, released a series of white papers that detailed how cable operators could control their networks by establishing tiered levels of service. Those content providers that can pay top dollar to the ISP will get priorityÃ£the fastest queueing and cacheing of information, the most bandwidth, etc. And as video and audio streaming becomes increasingly important, a disadvantage in quality may be all it takes keep people away from the sites that could not afford the luxury of premium service.
Additionally, and perhaps more significantly, before users can even find those “economy” sites, they will have to escape from the walled gardenÃ£a section of prominently displayed content affiliated with the ISP, designed so as to keep the viewer within the area for as long as possible. For example, within the walled garden of AOL-Time Warner, one would expect to find the visage of Bugs Bunny hawking all of his friends from the AOL-TW stable at every figurative turn: come, get your laughs from the cartoon network, get your libido sparked by the Sports Illustrated swimsuit models, and if you really insist on knowing whatÃªs going on in the world, why not try the newly made-over CNN?
But what if you find AlterNet more informative than Time magazine? What if your eardrums prefer the artists in the K Records stable to those of Warner Bros.? Unfortunately you won’t find alternative culture at this garden party, unless it has enough cash to bribe the gatekeeper. Even with the interactive television web/TV hybrid, the offerings within the walls are limited to the content that the service provider wants the viewer to see. ICTV, an interactive television service owned by cable monopolist John Malone, offers operators the opportunity to charge “slotting fees” for content to be given high visibility within the gardens. The unspoken implication is that if the content provider does not have the means to grease palms, they will be left out in the cold. Corporate content will once again become standard fare, and the democratic Internet will fade into the recesses of our minds to be recalled only as a brief experiment in openness.
Some argue that the walls will not be so high or so hidden that users could not vault them if they wanted to. If the flowers smell good enough, though, and the garden is colorful enough, what incentive is there to try? Not to mention that for every experienced user who may be able to find his or her way out of the walled garden, there is a mother or grandfather that has a hard enough time figuring out how to use a mouse, let alone know how to maneuver through the Web. Don’t they deserve the chance to find The Machine, too?
We Should Be Up in Arms About the Future of the Internet
As media go, it is not every day that we find one as decentralized, as full of information, and as empowering as the Internet. Radio and television have been left in the relative Stone Age as forums that do not allow for nearly the breadth of communication that the Net is capable of. Talk-show palaver aside, the old media exist largely as a one-way spectacle of narrow scope and redundant content, more often than not exclusive of underrepresented social, political, and cultural groups. Those whose interests are not served by the limited number of stations on television (on cable as well as broadcast TV) or by the commercialized radio stations must somehow find a way to organize without the ability to communicate at a mass level.
In contrast, the new media represent dialogue — many dialogues happening simultaneously — enabling people to converse with one another from town to town, coast to coast, country to country. Groups of citizens are able to express themselves to an extent unthinkable by old media standards, and an open Net, accordingly, has witnessed the rapid growth of independent, civic culture.
When something as vital to democracy as the future of the Internet is threatened by the same corporate entities that asphyxiate the flow of information in the old media, we must remind ourselves of what is at stake, of just what exactly we stand to lose if our new media is transformed into a mirror image of cable television.
What is at stake is the future of mass communication in our democracy.
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