The Internet Is Not Forever

"Preserve The Platform, Promote the Public Vision" was the slogan that Mark Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center threw out as THE challenge that media reformers must confront in the period ahead. He was trying to boil the problem down as a group of leading media-policy analysts gathered to discuss how to "promote democracy as digital discourse" at a seminar on broadband, Internet and the "digital divide," in the well-heeled offices of the Open Society Institute (OSI), the foundation formed by George Soros, one of the wealthiest men in the world.

The group included analysts and activists, media critics and foundation honchos, policy wonks and practitioners, librarians, lawyers and lobbyists. We were there to offer recommendations to Jack Willis, a veteran TV producer and OSI fellow about what foundations, including his own, should be spending their media money on. No doubt many of the attendees -- like myself -- had projects and agendas in need of financing and were secretly hoping that Jack would take us aside individually and slip a fat envelope into our hands. But that was not to be. (The truth is that many nominally independent organizations are dependent on foundation support. Happily, there are funders who recognize the need to support media reform.)

Instead, as each participant shared perspectives there was a clear sense that we are at a turning point in the battle to preserve public space in the media, online and off, as corporate power consolidates and becomes more dominant in the society at large. As Phillippe Riviere puts it in a LeMonde Diplomatique article, "www.buythis.com": "The Internet is going through a phase of confrontation between the public's demand for autonomy and the companies' desire to control their customers. In order to make the elements of this control more palatable, they are dressed up as 'content.'"

We were warned that the Internet that we know today will soon be as obsolete as black-and-white TV. Why? Because decisions are being made right now about the future architecture of a next generation Internet that could limit access, control information, narrow diversity and, in effect, make us pay for services and information flows that we now access for free. A fee-based "walled garden" model, a la AOL, is the goal of the telecoms, cable companies and Internet service providers (ISPs), many of whom have merged into media monoliths like AT&T. One insider predicted that in five years there will be only five ISPs left. AT&T, which within the last two years swallowed up TCI and MediaOne, boasts that it plans to become the only cable company.

The basic R&D for the original Net was funded with our tax dollars through the Advanced Projects Research Agency (APRA) of the Pentagon. It was designed to link researchers and universities but eventually blossomed into today's sprawling, global consumer and business medium. From its inception the Internet has been a model of how well-invested public money can achieve a public benefit.

Private commercial interests are financing the technical development for the next wave of online interactivity. But they have a different agenda, focused on their own interests not the public's. They are investing billions of dollars into broadband technologies to turn what has been largely an information-based medium into a video-driven, shopping mall-like entertainment emporium. (See my previous columns about the business of this business as described at recent insider conferences, "The Media Summit" and "Digital Hollywood".)

ICANN Alert The battle lines are being drawn. International organizations, dominated by business interests, are already hard at work on new protocols and rules to rationalize and tame the Web. Writer Steven Hill asks, "How many people have ever heard of ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers? Depending on whose description you read, ICANN is either an innocuous nonprofit with a narrow technical mandate, or the first step in corralling the Internet for commercial and other purposes."

ICANN is a nonprofit corporation that was chartered by the U.S. Department of Commerce in November 1999 to oversee a select set of Internet technical-management functions previously managed by the U.S. government. In theory a nonprofit can do the job as well as the government, but not if it's dominated by private interests and lacks accountability and transparency. Notes Hill, "These functions include fostering competition in the domain-name registration market (i.e. the selling of .com, .net and .org suffixes) and settling disputes over "cyber squatting" (the intentional buying of domain names like McDonalds.com for later resale at exorbitant prices to the corporation)."

Sound benign? Except that ICANN has operated secretly, with its very existence a secret to most Internet users. The reason is simple: It is not being covered by the media. I recently saw a study by the Real News Network in Canada that showed how little coverage ICANN has received in the international media. The study compared mentions of ICANN to mentions of actor Tom Cruise. It was no contest; Cruise citations overwhelmed ICANN citations 95-1. (This may be somewhat meaningless, as Cruise's new film was being heavily hyped at the time, but it does reflect the way trivial entertainment gets the most attention in the media-news category.) The real "mission impossible" here seems to be getting the news media to focus on the interests behind what could be an attempt to not-so-virtually steal the Internet.

Who Owns The Technology? Elsewhere, corporations are insisting that they own the underlying technology of the Web and want to get paid by those who use it. British Telecom, for example, is claiming to have the patent for the hyperlink technology that is at the heart of the Internet's interface. Can you imagine having to pay BT a nickel every time you click on a link? Don't smirk. It could happen.

These convoluted claims and counterclaims will keep lawyers and judges busy for the rest of the millennium. Oh, and don't assume that just because corporations want to do something they'll be able to. Many of the biggest dot-com-ers, despite their impressive business plans and "revenue models," are operating on shaky ground. Amazon.com's financial bubble burst after industry analysts took a careful look at their retailing operation and found it way short of the credit and dollars needs to run the operation. Whoops, down goes the stock price. Even Jeff Bezos, "Mr. Amazon," is not immune to the law of gravity.

Nor is the whole so-called New Economy. Buried in the pages of ComputerUser, a newspaper given away in my gym, was some disturbing, if under-publicized, news about our old friend (fiend?) Y2K. Apparently, the folks who maintain the online registry of Y2K-compliant systems have noted an "alarming number of reversals of late." ComputerUser quotes Y2K expert Joe Radich as saying, "I have been bashing the Y2K paranoids all year, but I have a fear that this really is going to hit, but as a slow-moving tidal wave, washing ashore from abroad and carrying a worldwide economic recession, not a romantic survivalist frontier." Adds the editor, "If this causes anything like the Asia currency crisis of 1998, it could spawn global recession."

That seems awfully apocalyptic, but coming from techies who tend not to have prophetic agendas, it is a warning that shouldn't be ignored. This is another reason the noncommercial world has to work harder and faster to (what's the slogan du jour?) "preserve the platform and promote the public vision."

Whose Access? Open access is one of the key issues in the battle over whether big companies will control the next generation of the Internet by excluding content they disapprove of or by making it too expensive for smaller users to use. Already a federal judge in the United States has ruled against groups who want to preserve open access. As MediaChannel.org reported, an appeals court in Oregon has overturned an open-access ordinance in Portland, Oregon, that was upheld by a lower court last year.

"This decision really puts the ball back in the FCC's court," explains Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Media Education. "For two years now, FCC Chairman Kennard has been touting his go-slow, hands-off policy, assuming that the marketplace would solve the open-access puzzle. Instead, we've been treated to needless uncertainty, costly lawsuits and the specter of closed cable systems that effectively wall off portions of the Internet for purely private exploitation."

Veteran activist Chester and other advocates want the Federal Communications Commission to take a strong stand in this matter to preserve the diversity and democracy that have long been hallmarks of the narrowband Internet and to insure that the broadband lines of the future will be open and competitive. They have convinced The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times to support them editorially. The cable companies are resisting this, as Tony Wilhelm of the Benton Foundation points out in his book "Democracy in the Digital Age" (Routledge 1999), because they need to "recoup their investment in the upgraded infrastructure the market imperative toward expensive pay per view services." He continues: "... the need to corral viewers into the net of advertisers means that citizens will be less likely to navigate noncommercial, civic environments online."

Time Warner chairman Gerry Levin had a rather slippery comment on this issue when it was put to him at a packed June 26 investors conference hosted by Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. He spoke of open access and "forced access" interchangably as a "buzzword" used by conflicting parties, but only in the context of interactive television, which he said no one can quite define yet. "I believe in multiple ISPs for cable television and in providing consumer choice," he said and then revealed that Time Warner and AOL had the switching technology in place to accommodate different ISPs. He explained that he is open to it because it will stimulate consumer demand for his company's services, not because of any commitment to a diverse range of information sources. He scoffed at the regulators who are there to serve the public interest. "We'll figure [interactive TV] out faster than any regulator," he boasted, referring to ideas like common carriage, which assures all of us access to phones, as an "eighteenth-century concept."

The key question is: What will the FCC do if and when the issue comes before them? DSL networks, used by telephone companies to provide speedier Net service, are governed by open-access requirements because they are provided by telecoms, which are regulated. Shouldn't the new broadband providers in the cable industry have the same requirements? If they don't, not-for-profit civil-society and NGO sites will have a harder time finding audiences because they won't be available through cable modems, the prime delivery vehicle for boadband technology. Activists like Chester say that by leveling the playing field and insuring open access in all technologies, "We can start planting the seeds for an online civic sector -- for networks that serve as effectively as they sell -- which is something that we've needed all along."

Those of us who want democratic remedies to prevail have more than big corporations to worry about. According to research from the Center for Information Policy, Americans are abandoning public space for home-centered private lives, consuming more and more media along the way and packing their personal environments with all manner of information technologies. As family sizes shrink, as more and more people live alone, the idea of robust civic centers shrinks as well. Add to this the "digital divide" that is an aspect of the growing gap between the wealthy and most working people -- and by no means just in the United States -- and you get an idea of the problems in promoting media equality. The challenge of providing online access to all is a big one, and not easily solved.

Civil rights activists are worried about this, too, as they should be. David Honig of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council submitted a brief to the FCC recently that invoked the memory of W.E.B. Dubois' prediction at the beginning of the last century that the defining issue of the 1900s would be the "color line." The defining issue of this century, says Honig, is "the information line -- the institutionalization of two societies, one information-rich and one information-poor." His group is going beyond demanding right of access to asserting a "media participation right" that is intended to reflect the ways in which consumers use media in their daily lives: as participants in the creation and transmission of content, as recipients of that content, and as respondents to that content.

How will the courts handle a cutting-edge legal idea like "media participation rights"? As it happened, the day after the OSI seminar, I introduced this very idea in a speech to 180 Connecticut judges assembled for a professional conference. I was pleased to be invited, although I think they were promised more of a comic routine than the case for media reform that I delivered. They were a stony-faced group more concerned with cameras in the courtroom than digital issues most didn't seem to know much about. Perhaps it's a generational thing, but I am not sure if the courts are savvy enough yet to rule proactively on issues like this.

It's clear that those of us who want to change the media order have a big job ahead of us. We need to find better ways to work together, to synergize at the bottom as big companies are doing at the top and then translate what we know into more effective messages and campaigns that will resonate with the consumers we want to activate as citizens.

Our court is still primarily the court of public opinion. I think the judges who heard me decry the media system may have been sympathetic, but what would their judgment be? Your Honors, honorable legislators, influential writers and editors, I await your verdict.

Danny Schechter is the executive editor of the MediaChannel.org.

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