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Progressive agenda beckons beyond Microsoft

Few analysts ponder the current dispute between Microsoft and the Justice Department without looking to the 1890s for context. Then, too, a massive economic transition was underway, and then, too, one man’s company seemed poised to exercise almost total control. The comparison between the industrial and information revolutions, and between John D. Rockefeller, the oil magnate, and Bill Gates, is so natural as to seem inevitable. It is also terribly misleading.

The key difference is that in the 1890s, debate over what role the people might play through their democratic institutions in setting limits to corporate power was just beginning; in the 1990s, that debate has largely been settled in favor of the corporate sector. The legacy of the Reagan era is that the basic tenets of deregulation and laissez-fare no longer describe one side of a national conversation about economic policy -- they are that policy.

So it’s a welcome development to see the Justice Department, in however belated or anemic a fashion, exerting itself on behalf of the public interest. The department’s action bucks the current drift into technological determinism, the notion that technological change is like the tides -- inevitable and beyond human control. In fact, human beings are right now hard at work determining how technology will affect society, and the vast majority of them work for companies such as Microsoft, Disney and TCI. The question is not whether people will decide how technology changes the world, but which people. More broadly, it’s whether all of us as citizens -- not as self-interested consumers but as citizens concerned for the common good -- should have a place at the decision-making table.

As cultural critic Neil Postman rightly points out, technological change is not additive, it’s ecological -- in other words, it changes everything. Certainly that’s true today, as the predicted convergence of TVs, computers, telephones and the Internet promises to utterly transform how we access and communicate information. As NCR reported May 22 [see link at the end of this article], both the Clinton administration and the Republicans in Congress are in lockstep on what role government should play in this arena: none. Without any public debate, surrendering control to the corporate sector has become our de facto national policy. Again, that’s what makes the Justice Department’s action so remarkable.

So, here’s what’s a stake in the Microsoft case. At one level, it’s whether a single company should be able to control access to cyberspace, which is what Microsoft’s insistence on combining its Web browser with its operating system amounts to. If the only way for most people to get on the Web is through the Microsoft “portal,” that gives the company tremendous sway over what sites most people see most often.

Microsoft already has introduced Carpoint, its own online auto sales outlet, and Sidewalk, a virtual shopping mall. It has also purchased WebTV. In one possible future, you won’t be able to buy a car or watch TV without lining Bill Gates’ pockets. It’s hard to imagine that placing so much power in one set of hands isn’t ultimately harmful to competition, whether of products or ideas.

This is not to vilify Microsoft, which has delivered a remarkable run of generally terrific products. More are soon to come -- anyone who’s ever spent an agonizing couple of hours in a traffic jam, for example, will appreciate this fall’s release of AutoPC, which employs speech recognition to allow people to receive E-mail, surf the Web, dial a cellular phone or get directions to a restaurant while driving. Childhood development experts are generally hailing the “Actimates,” Microsoft’s line of “smart toys” now in development. Nothing wrong with bringing creative stuff to the market.

Indeed, there’s nothing wrong either with profit or with size. In pursuing these aims, Microsoft is simply behaving as companies do. But the point is that profit and size by themselves are insufficient to guarantee that technology operates in ways that are socially beneficial rather than socially toxic. It would be good, therefore, if the Justice Department prevails, and if Microsoft is compelled to make room for competitors.

But at another level, much more than simple enforcement of antitrust laws is necessary. If the people -- especially those most at the margins -- are to be anything but losers in the information revolution, America must craft a progressive national agenda for technology policy.

What might such an agenda look like? Clearly a serious commitment to universal access to information technologies should be its first component. Next, the national agenda should protect and support noncommercial zones in cyberspace.

We should not repeat the mistake of allowing radio and television to be entirely dominated by commercial voices. The consequences of that decision in impoverished public discourse and a widespread sense of disempowerment are clear. Instead, it should be our national policy that civic affairs, the arts, explorations of our cultural diversity -- in short, the type of content the marketplace is ill-equipped to provide -- are properly funded, well-produced and widely available.

Lawrence Grossman, among others, has sketched in his book The Electronic Republic (Penguin USA) how such a public presence in cyberspace might work. Grossman sees such an initiative by way of analogy to our public museums and universities, widely viewed as the envy of the world. If we can do it in the real world, Grossman reasons, we can do it virtually. He argues in favor of taxing broadcast spectrum allocations and telecommunications mergers to generate a pool of resources for nonprofit groups to create content that can compete for eyeballs on a level playing field with the likes of Disney and MSNBC.

Whether his plan or some other ultimately prevails, Grossman is at least asking the right questions. Because new technologies are so complex and the pace of change so intense, people concerned with justice often throw up their hands. But precisely because of that vacuum of attention, commercial interests have been able to colonize and exploit cyberspace without facing a serious moral critique. It’s time for that to change.

We have some reason to be cheered by the Justice Department’s spunk, to the extent that it acts as a proxy for the whole notion of meaningful action by the public sector. But no matter who prevails in that dispute, the broader crusade is still to be waged. At the end of the 1990s, what America needs is a new burst of the populist energy of the 1890s, an insistence that technological change be made to serve the public good. Were that to occur, perhaps the comparison between the two eras and their respective avatars -- John Rockefeller and Bill Gates, Standard Oil and Microsoft -- might make sense after all.

National Catholic Reporter, June 5, 1998