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Commercial interests lust for cyberspace

NCR Staff

While the Justice Department's ongoing battle with Microsoft grabs the headlines, behind the scenes in Washington a strong consensus has emerged about the role government should play in relation to the Internet, and it can be summed up in three words: Leave it alone. The technology is too complex, the argument goes, and is changing too fast to do anything else.

Conventional wisdom therefore holds that other than enforcing contracts and antitrust laws, government should leave businesses alone to exploit this new technology for their own profit. Ira Magaziner, President Clinton's senior adviser on the Internet, came to Boston to praise this laissez-faire philosophy -- and ran into passionate calls to bury it.

Magaziner appeared at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as part of a conference on "Democracy and Digital Media" May 8 and 9. The meeting brought together scholars, media professionals and a handful of activists and students to talk about what consequences the "digital revolution" -- the predicted convergence of television, computer, cable and telephone technologies -- might have for democratic government.

Two questions coursed through the MIT event: Should the commercial sector dominate the new media -- in other words, is what's best for the likes of Disney and Microsoft what's best for all? Or is there some role for public debate and political action to support noncommercial activity?

Noting that his bias is to "promote economic growth," Magaziner argued that supply and demand should govern the evolution of digital media to the ultimate benefit of consumers.

He said the core policies to ensure a hands-off environment for the Internet will be in place within "the next couple of months." They include a national moratorium on Internet taxation, a global agreement to treat cyberspace as a duty-free zone and a plan for privatizing the technical administration of the Internet. (Magaziner's Internet policy papers are available at www.ecommerce.gov)

Benjamin Barber, scholar and author of the highly touted Jihad Versus McWorld (Ballantine, 1995) led the charge against this approach. "Perhaps Magaziner is right that we don't know where these technologies are heading, but that's all the more reason not to turn them over to a marketplace whose motives and biases we do know well enough," Barber said.

Noting that Magaziner had stressed "caution" as a hallmark of the Clinton approach, he said, "The notion that we should surrender knowledge and the media to communicate it to the market, allowing shareholders to be the sole determiners of what happens to them and think that in so doing we're being cautious, strikes me as a kind of lunacy."

"It's time for this administration, it's time for Ira Magaziner, to take a course in democracy," Barber said. "Then they'll be in a position to talk to us about the role of this technology."

While many said privately -- and one, American Prospect editor Paul Starr, said publicly -- that Barber's rhetoric was over the top, few in the MIT crowd seemed to reject his core premise: There should be public deliberation about how these technologies will transform society.

The trend toward commercial dominance of the new digital media is apparent in a number of ways, according to participants:

  • The vast majority of Web users now begin their Internet experience with one of a handful of so-called "portals" -- homepages such as Yahoo! and Microsoft. The companies that own these sites can direct users toward commercially oriented destinations. Currently, there are no widely used nonprofit "portals." Yahoo! alone attracts visitors from more than 30 million households in the United States who spend more than 503 million hours monthly at the site, according to Internet ratings services.
  • The increasing cost of Web site design, driven by graphics and interactivity, makes it difficult for nonprofit groups and individual citizens to compete for public attention.
  • As "push" technologies (those, like television, that require little effort on the part of the user) become more widespread, the dominant mode of Internet usage may become sitting in front of the television screen, selecting from among commercially oriented sites, rather than in front of a computer screen actively seeking information. This trend will be accelerated by industry plans to provide more bandwidth (the capacity to transmit data) for "downloading," or piping content into people's homes, but not for "uploading," sending content out of homes.
  • There is little political appetite for challenging the massive media/telecommunications lobby. Congress voted in 1996, for example, to double the electromagnetic spectrum allocation for broadcasters and charge them nothing for it, resources worth an estimated $70 billion. Activists charge that some of that spectrum, to be used for new digital channels, should have been reserved for public use.

According to Lawrence Grossman, former president of PBS and NBC news, the situation is "eerily reminiscent" of the early days of radio, "when everyone thought this was going to be a citizen's medium," Grossman said. "Then the commercial broadcasters took over when they figured out how to make money off of it."

Magaziner held his ground, arguing that as the Internet and broadcast media come together, the broadcast components should be deregulated. To try to regulate the new converged environment as television, telephones and radio have traditionally been regulated, he said, would be to "allow the old world to capture the new."

David Winston, technology adviser to House Speaker Newt Gingrich, echoed the call for an unregulated and privatized Internet, arguing that the technology will produce a "new age of reason" and a "new era of individual freedom."

Barber blasted those notions. "If we live in a society colonized by commerce," he said, "where we're malled and theme-parked to death, it's hardly a surprise that this brave new technology is becoming only one more commercial tool. But for those of us who believe it has civic, educational and democratic promise, why would we think this technology will look any different if it's as basely commercial as the rest of the culture?

"The big boys are taking over," Barber said, "and our government is putting out the welcome mat."

Others echoed Barber's criticism. "I sat in the audience and really wanted to give Magaziner a chance," said Doug Schuler, who teaches at Evergreen State College in Washington state and is a cofounder of the Seattle Community Network, an effort to build a civic, nonprofit zone in cyberspace. "But I have to say he confirmed all my worst fears.

"A lot of people have forgotten this, but the Internet was built and paid for by the American taxpayer," Schuler said. He was referring to the fact that government agencies such as the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency built the computer networks that became the Internet, "and then one fine day the government said, `We're not interested in this anymore.' "

Nolan Bowie, a public interest lawyer and visiting professor at Harvard said, "We've got the freedom to choose a wide variety of products in the marketplace, but not the freedom to choose a wide variety of ideas moving us toward democratic goals." He said that laissez-faire technology policies are moving the country toward "electronic feudalism."

Magaziner conceded that making sure the Internet does not exacerbate the gap between rich and poor is one area where government action may be needed, pointing to the Clinton initiative to hardwire all of America's schools as one solution. Several participants suggested, however, that if the Internet becomes saturated with commercial content, piping it into schools will be of questionable value.

Despite worries about commercializing cyberspace, most at the MIT gathering seemed equally skeptical of anything a government bureaucracy might do. Interest focused, therefore, on the "third sector" -- private, nonprofit groups and institutions. One model of how to apply their resources to the new media was offered by Grossman, author of The Electronic Republic (Viking, 1995).

Grossman argued for a new national telecommunications policy that would build a "parallel public system" alongside the commercial sector. The idea is to allocate public dollars to nonprofit groups, such as universities, libraries, museums and schools, to build content -- Web sites, TV shows, radio programs, multimedia computer applications -- that would be "high-quality, well-promoted and well-marketed," Grossman said.

"The marketplace must not be sole determiner of how we use information technology," Grossman said. "In the digital era, it would be shameful not to deliver to every household, school and institution the critically needed, well-produced public interest materials we're capable of creating."

Grossman suggested that taxing spectrum auctions -- when broadcasters pay for the slice of the electromagnetic spectrum along which their signal travels -- and transaction taxes on telecommunications mergers would produce the revenue necessary to make his proposal work on a national scale. He compared the suggestion to the Land Grant Act of 1862, when the U.S. government auctioned off public lands in order to finance the construction of public universities. "We've accepted the need for public spaces in other areas of our national life, and now we need to do it in telecommunications," he said.

In an interview with NCR, Grossman said that while including religious and church groups in his plan might pose some issues of church/state separation, he was "all for it" if the potential legal hurdles could be overcome.

Others at the conference argued that Grossman's vision was too centralized and grandiose, preferring a more local and grassroots solution. Schuler offered his Seattle Community Network as an example.

The network -- funded through donations and staffed by volunteers -- offers free computer access to anyone in the Seattle area who wants it, including free e-mail, Web sites, and bulletin board access. They offer training and resources to anyone, individual or group, who wants to build a Web site and link it to the SCN home page (www.scn.org). Launched in 1992, the network has 14,000 users and gives voice to a host of community, civic and activist groups.

"What we're doing is supporting democratic uses of electronic technology," Schuler said. "The idea is to use this technology to build up, rather than erode, our commitment to our local community." Schuler said governments at all levels should be supporting similar alternatives.

Barber believes the core issue is whether there will be any public debate at all over what to do. "I'd feel much better if after a national debate America in effect said, We want this privatized, we've heard the arguments and we still feel better off with the private sector than the public sector ... but this debate is not held," he said. "For those of us who care about the struggle for democracy and social justice, that's the most basic question of all."

National Catholic Reporter, May 22, 1998