Regulating the Internet: Our Last Chance to Save Democracy?

Why regulating the Internet is our last chance to save democracy

It is undeniable that the Internet is changing the way we live; we rely on it for communication, information, entertainment and economics. We tap into it for the ability to reach beyond our physical boundaries and broaden our horizons (Chester par. 1). If it is nurtured properly, the Internet has the potential to become a major outlet for democratic expression and participation (Egan and Kurland 389). In this new age of communications, being able to send and receive information is at least as important as the ability to exchange goods and services in the marketplace (Rifkin par. 9). But while access is something that everyone wants, it’s not something that everyone may be able to control. Large corporations with money and influence are beginning to regulate who gets access, what kind of access they get and how much they pay for it. According to an article in The Information Society, “continuing economic barriers pose the risk that participation in the ‘Net will merely reflect and further reinforce the current socioeconomic hierarchy in the United States” (Egan and Kurland 393). Whether the Internet becomes a tool of democracy that will liberate and equalize consumers, or just another means for media conglomerates to control pop culture and public opinion rests largely upon whether access and content will be controlled publicly or privately (Egan and Kurland 388).

Currently, the Internet is mostly controlled by private interests, businesses and corporations striving mainly for one bottom line: profit. However, this kind of laissez faire market system will only work to debase and ultimately undermine freedom and access on the ‘Net. In a letter written on May 3, 2001, the International Federation of Journalists acknowledged this growing problem on a larger scale; “Subtle threats to freedom of expression come from within the media itself as a result of media concentration, globalization and a culture of greed within the industry. Today a handful of media conglomerates control much of the information across the globe” (International par. 10).

Just because the Internet is still largely composed of small sites and non-profit groups at the moment should not lull us into thinking that this will always be the case. According to media critic Robert McChesnew, every form of mass media since AM radio in the 1920s has started out this way – at first, the medium does not seem commercially viable, so it’s developed by non-profit and non-commercial groups. Eventually, the potential for profit emerges, and almost instantly, the corporate world begins colonizing the medium and takes over, using its control over politicians to secure power (Introna and Nissenbaum 170). Evidence of the commercialization of the Web is easily found through the abundance of banners and large, corporate controlled sites and portals. In order to curb this corporate sprawl before it gets worse, the government needs to begin regulating the Internet and protect it from the growing commercial force of neo-liberalism.

Neo-liberalism is an economic movement and has nothing to do with political liberalism. Liberal economics first appeared on the stage around 1776 when Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations, which urged governments to stay out of the way of economic matters, and let the market take care of itself. This became the dominant economic philosophy in the United States until the Great Depression in the 1930s and Roosevelt’s New Deal, which saw government regulation of the market. However, the “capitalist crisis over the last 25 years with its shrinking profit rates” lead America’s “cooperate elite to revive economic liberalism” (Garcia and Martinez par. 5). The neo-liberal business model for dealing with the information and communications industries goes something like this: get control of the medium by privatizing it, which often means buying it from the government. Next, free the market from any kind of restrictions regarding the use of the medium, such as mandatory public service access. Finally, eliminate any kind of use that is non-commercial, and appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to maximize profits (Garcia and Martinez pars. 7 – 12). The system is brutally efficient, but the result is that the “quality of media is rock-bottom,” and that smaller, alternative voices cannot be heard (International par. 13). Public good has no priority when the market is driven by neo-liberalism.

The most valuable piece of property in the information age, the electromagnetic spectrum, has been traditionally regarded as a public good, so it’s no surprise that corporations want to take it away from the public. The electromagnetic spectrum, the air waves that radio, TV and the wireless Internet use, has been treated as a kind of “commons.” Since no one can claim physical ownership of the spectrum, the government is its steward on behalf of the people, and licenses it to companies and organizations for broadcast (Rifkin pars. 1-2). Corporations want this to change. A number of years ago, the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative group with ties to Newt Gingrich, published “The Telecom Revolution: An American Opportunity.” This report called for the privatization of public airwaves, and the abolition of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which oversees them. This “seemed a bit too ambitious, even for the most experienced Washington corporate lobbyists” and the proposal wasn’t accepted. However, that didn’t mean that the idea was dropped. Shortly after George W. Bush assumed the presidency, a letter from 37 leading U.S. economists was sent to the FCC, asking that broadcasters be able to lease the spectrum that the government is licensing them in secondary markets. It’s a smaller step than the radical plan the Progress and Freedom Foundation suggested, but the end result is still the same: the government will no longer be able to control who controls the air space and media conglomerates will be able to use it and sell it as they please, like “private electronic real estate” (Rifkin pars. 3-5).

But even if media conglomerates don’t get ownership of the airspace, they’re still pretty well in control of the TV and radio content that travels the spectrum, and they want that kind of control over the Internet as well. It’s treated more like cable TV, which varies in price and content from market to market and is generally controlled by only one company in an area – a monopoly. This means that unless federal regulations are put in place, one company will have complete control over who gets access to the Internet, and what they have access to (Chester pars. 5-6).

One AT&T executive said that the Internet as we know it, will only be available through a “back door” in the system, that only the most technically sophisticated will be able to access. The industry is confident that the open, equal system we associate with the Internet will be replaced by bundled, broadband service that will also include services like cable TV (Chester par. 13). In some parts of the country, that’s already happening. Broadband “will become the standard way Internet is delivered to our homes,” and large corporations want to make sure that they’re in control every step of the way. AT&T spent over $90 billion in three years to become the world’s largest cable company, and Cisco, which is helping to build the DSL backbone system for broadband, has laid plans for network operators to impede access to unaffiliated sites, while giving priority to their own sites (Chester par. 7). This could usher in a kind of info-Mafia; sites could have to pay for “insurance” that their content would be able to reach users. Large, mainstream sites would certainly be able to pay for their visibility. Smaller, alternative sites not be able to afford the fee would get buried under piles of corporate-fueled sites.

As this moment, companies are imposing similar policies in areas that they already control, getting rid of public service media, author control, ethics, quality, anything that minimizes profit, and it’s not like it’s any big secret (International par. 11). It is completely accepted for TV station owners to refuse to carry content that would compete with their commercial interest, even if it inconveniences the viewers or denies them information (Miller 129). TimeWarner recently dropped ABC from several cable systems across the country in a dispute with Disney, ABC’s owner. Imagine what they could do to a smaller company (Chester par. 12)!

Even newspapers, generally regarded as an example of reliable, objective information are not immune to corporate coercion. In 1993 Editor and Publisher magazine published the results of a survey of 150 newspaper editors; 39% said that advertisers had tried to influence story content, 55% said that they had been pressured by other members of their newspaper to succumb to advertisers’ wishes, and 37% were “honest enough” to admit to changing a story to please advertisers (Miller 130).
When media conglomerates have so much influence over the information that the public receives, and corporations control so much of the economy, the public is bound to be short-changed. While the market is wiggling out of the government’s grip, it’s further tightening its control over politicians.

A startling example of this happened in 1993. Over 93 educational, activist and civic groups sent an open letter to congress requesting that telecommunications networks be required to reserve capacity for public right-of-way. This would allow non-commercial programming, civil discourse, educational and information services to flourish without economic barriers. In response Daniel Inouye, the Senate Commerce Committee’s Communications Subcommittee Chairman, submitted the Public-Right-of-Way Act, which called for all telecommunications carriers to pay a fee that would be used to help finance non-profit programming, and to reserve a minimum of 20% of available channels or video capacity for non-commercial use. By the time the Senate’s version of the Communications Act was drafted in 1994, the special fund was gone and the space set aside for non-commercial use had dropped to five percent or less, at incremental cost rates. Cable providers got exempted from the provisions anyway, because they said that they were too weighted down as it was with public-access TV. The Senate underwent a major overhaul in the 1994 election and the whole bill ended up being scrapped, but it remains a vivid example of the enormous clout media-conglomerates have in Washington (Miller 130-131).

While public access programming on the Internet is certainly not hard to come by, it’s not exactly protected either, nor is it necessarily readily available. In order to find information on the Web, most consumers use some kind of search engine like Yahoo! or Excite, and while a search may yield thousands of results, it is unreasonable to assume that a searcher would look beyond the first 20 or 30 hits. If a site does not show up in the first tier of results, for most practical purposes, it doesn’t exist (Introna and Nissenbaum 171). A 1999 study showed that any single search engine will only index 16% percent or less of the entire Internet, and all the search engines combined would only index 42% of the Internet (Introna and Nissenbaum 170). These technical limitations mean that a great deal of the information available on the Internet is simply not being found, and that the large companies that own most search engines are already able to control the access consumers receive.
There are two basic kinds of search engines. One type is directory based search engines, where webmasters submit their site for review to a human editor. The other is spider based search engines; automated systems that follow routes in the hypertext structure and gather information about pages. However, both of these methods have their faults. Directory search engines have six-month long queues of sites waiting to be reviewed, and only about 25% of those reviewed get accepted (Introna and Nissenbaum 171). Most directory search engines don’t publish specific criteria for acceptance, so site creators can’t knowledgeably tailor their sites fit the directory standards. Also, as long as standards aren’t published, directory editors can’t be held accountable for their reasons for rejecting a site, which could easily yield censorship (Introna and Nissenbaum 171; Miller 238). The way that spider engines work is complex, but it basically means that popular sites with lots of links to their pages from other sites and good locations get priority. The algorithms that the spiders operate on are also not available to the public (Introna and Nissenbaum 173).

Because almost all search engines are commercial ventures, they’re constantly driven by profit, which means that the all important top ten sites in a list of search results can generally be bought. Besides the fact that large, established, usually commercial sites are by nature more likely to appear highest on a hit list, some search engines, like AltaVista and DoubleClick recently invited advertises to bid for top spots. Yahoo! allows site owners to pay for express indexing, which means that sites with strong financial backing can bribe their way to the front of the queue (Introna and Nissenbaum 174). Once again, smaller, independent voices get lost in neo-liberalism’s mad rush for profit.

This is the inherent problem with basing the Internet of a free market economy: large corporations and media conglomerates are allowed uncurbed, exponential growth, while alternative sites, services and ideas are denied the means to survive. As the Internet becomes more and more important, it will become more and more centralized and controlled by only a few large, mainstream corporations. So much power concentrated in the hands of so few goes directly against democratic principles. Additionally, it could further the “dumbing down” of our culture and enhance the dull uniformity of mass media.
The Internet should not be regulated by the market; doing so will only further inhibit its ability to function as a tool of freedom and democracy (Egan and Kurland 399). Consumers need access to information in order to evaluate all options and determine the right one, but this goes against the refusal of mass media to risk commercial sponsorship by showing controversial material and the refusal of search engines to provide a fair and consistent means of indexing web sites (Miller 230; Introna 170). Because media conglomerates are reluctant to publish information about their own economic, political, social and even technical biases, not only are consumers unaware of the biases, they are also unaware that they are unaware (Introna and Nissenbaum 177).

There is currently no level playing field for information and service providers on the Internet, because consumers looking for information aren’t the only force at play – web sites are also struggling to be found, and some have more access to the means and money to be found. Entire parts of the Internet may disappear if large corporations get control because they have little incentive to include specialized, alternative markets on their version of the Internet, and relatively small costs in loss of consumer participation if those markets are excluded (Introna and Nissenbaum 177).

The facts are that as long as neo-liberalism dominates the Internet, consumers will be under informed and small markets will be overlooked; the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. To an extent, this is already happening because of the digital divide, the growing gap between socioeconomic classes as technology advances only those who were advanced to begin with (LeBlanc et al. par. 3). Providing options and access to minorities and to the poor will not be a priority as long as corporations are in control and pursuing the interests of the lowest common denominator.

The ideal Web serves everyone, not just the mainstream (Introna and Nissenbaum 180). In order to provide access and a comprehensive way for everyone to not only find, but also be found on the Internet, the government needs to step in and pass laws for regulating the Internet. Keeping the Internet equal and open is not in the best interest of the market, but then neither are things like schools, public parks, elderly and disabled people. Just like the government makes public decisions to protect these things that would otherwise fall by the wayside in the market system, it also needs to take a proactive step in preserving, and enhancing the Internet (Introna and Nissenbaum 178). The government is helping fund the National Information Infrastructure, so why isn’t the public able to set goals and strategies for it? The Internet is a public good, not a private good, but we need wide-spread democratic discussion and decision making if it is going to stay that way (Miller 79).

In the Netherlands, the government has made broadcast time and resources available among civic groups according the groups’ membership, and allots time to other topics in proportion to audience contributions. The system is in effect on both local and national levels, and is open to all groups, with no censorship allowed (Miller 230). The United States may have been the first place to protect free speech, but U.S. policy makers should take a serious look at the Dutch public access system, which seems to be a much more open forum than any medium in the states – except the Internet. But if the ‘Net continues to go unregulated except by the market, this may quickly change.

If global media companies control the flow of communications, as they do more and more every day, how will different views and cultures be expressed? How will poor people become connected? How will the right free speech and the right to communicate and the right to privacy be protected (Rifkin par. 14)? The Internet is our chance to give communications and media back to the people, but that chance will slip away unless Washington and the American public quickly wake up to the fact that the “freedom of business to pursue pure profit without constraint is behind the debasement of our culture” (Miller 12). If the government no longer protects or secures our right to freely communicate with each other, if instead this right lays in the greedy hands of media conglomerates, our most basic freedoms will not be secured anymore. Democracy will cease to exist if the current trend continues – when only a handful of corporate executives control our access to information there will be no room for independent voice, nor perhaps, independent thought.

Works cited

Chester, Jeff. “Beware the Digital Landlords!” 18 September, 2000. This article was arranged as “an open letter to Internet users,” and discussed how large corporations like AOL and TimeWarner are trying to take control of the Internet, and what consumers can do to stop them. It was written shortly before the AOL/TimeWarner merger, so its information in that area was a little outdated, but it provided me with excellent info about broadband and how cable companies plan to control access that way. The views expressed in the article were also very close to my own. The author of the article serves as executive director of the Center for Media Education, so I image that he has a pretty good handle on this kind of thing.

Egan, Terri D. and Nancy B. Kurland. “Engendering Democratic Participation via the Net: Access, Voice and Dialogue.” The Information Society. Vol. 12, no. 4. October-December 1996: 387-406. This article dealt with ways to encourage and promote democracy on the Internet, as well as outlining the social, educational and economic barriers in the way of cyber-democracy. Because of its date, none of the specific information was particularly useful, but I found lots of broad, generalized ideas from this article that helped me structure my paper. It was published in “The Information Society,” a respected international journal about communications.

Garcia, Arnolodo and Elizabeth Martinez. “What is Neo-Liberalism?” CorpWatch. This article explained neo-liberalism, its history, its methods and its effects, albeit from a slightly anti-neo-liberalism standpoint. Still, the information was useful, and I was able to use it to define a centralized movement behind the harms I outline in my paper. Both of the authors are Zapatistas, members of an anti-corporate movement based out of Mexico. Since the Zapatistas were the first to really define neo-liberalism, their definition is probably pretty reliable.

International Federation of Journalists. “Declaration for World Press Freedom Day.” 3 May, 2001. This was a letter written by the International Federation of Journalists expressing their concerns about the future of media and journalism. It dealt with themes of globalization and corporate greed, both of which are prominent in my paper. Since the article was written by spokespeople for a non-profit, international organization of those directly involved in the media, I feel confident that it is a reliable source.
Introna, Lucas D. and Helen Nissenbaum. “Shaping the Web: Why the Politics of Search Engines Matters.” The Information Society. Vol. 16, no. 3. 169-185. This article was an in-depth look at how search engines effect the way that people access information on the Internet, but also provided some insight to how the Internet is and can be controlled. I used its explanation of search engines to back up my claim that the general population has little control over what sifts to the top of the Internet, but the article was so in-depth that I was able to get a lot more out of it as well. This article was incredibly well-researched and thought out, and was rightfully published in an international journal that deals mainly with Internet social issues.

LeBlanc, Jamal, et al. “Arizona ‘Ahead of its Time’ in Online Voting?” The Digital Beat. Vol. 2, no. 27. 30 March, 2000. This article analyzed a recent Democratic primary election held in Arizona, where ballots were cast via the Internet. The authors concluded that this method of participation is probably too new, and not representative enough of the population to for its use to become widespread. I used its discussion about the digital divide between those who have technology and those who don’t to emphasize my point that neo-liberalism is only making the rich richer and the poor poorer. The article presents its points in a clear, very well-researched way, as one would expect from something like the Digital Beat, a well-established Internet communications journal.

Miller, Steven E. Civilizing Cyberspace: policy, power and the information superhighway. New York: ACM Press, 1996. This book was published in 1996, when the Internet was just getting started. It includes a wealth of information about how today’s policies will shape cyberspace for tomorrow. It discusses the theory behind Internet commerce and democracy, which provided a solid background for my research, and also gave some examples of how corporations are trying to control media. The book is extensive and well researched; Miller provides interviews with experts at the end of every chapter. Miller himself is editor-in-chief of Lotus Magazine and the Science Commentator for One Norway Street, and Emmy-award winning TV show.

Rifkin, Jeremy. “Mayday, Mayday.” Guardian Unlimited. 28 April, 2001. This article was mainly about media conglomerates trying to privatize public airwaves, but it also talked about the dangers of only a few corporations our flow of information. This directly related to my thesis that the Internet is in danger of being privatized. Through its description of airwaves, the article also provided me with historical context. Guardian Unlimited is a large European news website, with lots of articles and credibility. Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Age of Access, and the president of The Foundation of Economic Trends in Washington DC, which makes him the perfect author for an article that discusses both media and economics.

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