The Internet and Democracy
Draft: do not quote
Michael W. Howard
Department of Philosophy
The University of Maine
Orono, ME 04469, USA
a paper for a conference of the International Institute for Self-management
“Community Informatics: an electronic network for economic democracy?”
University of Teesside, UK
28 June - 5th July 2002
The “widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the people.” –U.S. Supreme Court, Associated Press v. United States, 326 U.S. 1, 20 (1944)
“The fate of media reform and the U.S. left are inexorably intertwined.” --Robert McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy
The importance of new information technologies for economic democracy can hardly be overstated, particularly when seen in relationship to media reform and in the wider context of capitalist globalization, deregulation, and privatization. The major media–television, radio, film, video, magazines, books, music, newspapers–not only in the U.S., but in the world, are increasingly dominated by a few big media conglomerates such as AOL-Time Warner, Bertelsmann, Viacom, SONY, Vivendi, Disney, News Corporation, and AT&T.
New media, computer-mediated communication, particularly the Internet, are rapidly being absorbed into this oligopolistic system. However the Internet also opens up some possibilities for democratization of communication. In what follows I will take note of some of the initial promise of the Internet, describe how it is being threatened, and mention some of its negative effects on democratic participation. Although I am not entirely skeptical of the democratic potential of the Internet, I think a clear statement of limits and problems is necessary to avoid utopian illusions.
Distinctiveness of the Internet
It is worth noting at the outset how remarkable the Internet is, in comparison with other media of communication, first, for its openness of access, both for audience and producers of content, despite the digital divide. (The “digital divide” refers to the gap between those groups with a high percentage of Internet users--overwhelmingly middle and upper class, more white and Asian than black and Latino, and concentrated in North America–and those who for lack of resources or education are unable or uninterested in logging on. Universal access is a key issue, and is a logical extension of the “right to receive and impart information through the media,” in the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. [Buckley, S. "From Managua To Milan: The Milan Declaration on Communication and Human Rights." InteRadio, December 1998, pp. 20-21.
].) But for those who can afford access–and the costs are diminishing, and can be further reduced as terminals become available in libraries and other public places–anyone can log on, find a remarkable range of websites worldwide, and also put content on the net, and all users are treated with the same equality as users of telephones receive from the telephone networks.
The decentralized, many-to-many, potentially interactive architecture sets the Internet apart from broadcasting and print media (one to many, centralized, passive) and also telecommunications (one to one), and is what holds so much potential for democratic self-organization at many levels. This, together with the relatively low production and distribution costs of putting up a website, also accounts for the diversity of content to be found on the web.
Communication on the Internet is largely free both from government and corporate censors–despite efforts to regulate content by opponents of pornography--, and affords individuals a freedom to organize their news and entertainment instead of having it packaged for them by a corporate intermediary. (This last freedom, encouraged by software and Internet service providers, is a mixed blessing, as it also threatens the atomization of political culture. See Cass Sunstein, “The Daily We: Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?” http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR26.3/sunstein.html . I’ll return to this theme later.)
Another noteworthy feature–at least of the “narrowband” Internet we have seen up to now–is a relative equality of voice. Any person or group can put up a website, at relatively low cost, and can gain the attention of others as readily as corporate players. (See Jerry Berman and John B. Morris, Jr., "The Broadband Internet: The End of the Equal Voice?", CFP, April 2000, http://www.cdt.org/publications/
Finally, some have thought that these features of the Internet will undercut entirely the dominance of the old media. The viewer as editor can assemble his own newspaper. Artists can by-pass distributors and studios by putting their own work up on the web for download. The enormous choices on the web threaten the appeal of cable television, and make dinosaurs of the broadcasting networks.
However, this last point is naively utopian. We cannot be saved by technology alone. The media conglomerates, whose hegemony is indeed threatened by new digital technologies, have already taken steps toward bringing the Internet under their control and will change its distinctive features. To understand this, it is necessary to look at the Internet in the context of the social relations in which it is embedded and which shape its development. (My focus is heavily on North America, where the Internet developed, where its usage still predominates, and where the major changes in the character of the Internet are likely to be determined, although there may be things that can be done by other countries and even municipalities, as well as trans-national institutions like the E.U. and the U.N., to save the Internet from being entirely commercial and corporate-dominated. Unfortunately, the World Trade Organization has already paved the way for “privatization on a global scale and the domination of the telecommunications behemoths.
[Nicholas Baran, “The Privatization of Telecommunication,” in McChesney, Wood, and Foster, 123–33, p. 132. See the following for a resolution, DOC NO. ECOM-26-01, of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue on the subject of open broadband networks: http://www.tacd.org/cgi-bin/db.cgi?page=view&config=admin/docs.cfg&id=99 ])
Privatization and Commercialization
Although developed through public funding by the government, military, and universities, and initially noncommercial in its ethos, the Internet was turned over to private enterprise in the mid-nineties, with hardly any public debate (McChesney, 122, 128–30). The last decade has seen an efflorescence of e-commerce, not only new “dot.coms” but the Internet presence of most major firms, the development of search engines, and merger mania as the major computer, telecommunications, broadcasting, and cable tv companies engage in a battle of the titans over who will control the Net, how, and for what purposes. While one of the first major battles–whether the Internet will be public or private–has been lost, there is much that remains undetermined, and some slim hopes for an Internet with more rather than less democratic potential.
Cable versus Telephone. Most households and businesses in the U.S. are connected to the Internet through telephone lines. AOL for example “accounts for 40 percent of all online traffic, and 60 percent of home use.” (McChesney, 166) But with the coming of digital tv and broadband–high speed--service, this may change, and threaten some of the more democratic aspects of the Net. Cable television providers are making inroads and are “the primary suppliers of broadband connectivity to residential users,” according to the Media Access Project. (http://www.mediaaccess.org/programs/broadband/ . For an example of AT&T smashing a local phone line DSL supplier with its cable alternative, see http://www.law.usm.maine.edu/mlta/works/01/AT&T1.htm For information on a bill in the Congress to deregulate the phone companies–which passed the House, but not the Senate–see http://www.democraticmedia.org/news/washingtonwatch/HR1542pass.html ). With broadband–high-speed access–and digital tv, we will in any case see a convergence of broadcasting, the Internet, computers, and telecommunications, as the Internet becomes accessible through tv, and broadcasting/cablecasting content becomes available on the Internet. Broadband will enable much higher speed transmission of information–at least 30 times the speed of the fastest modems, and with this comes the capacity to receive high quality audio and video without lengthy download time. Cable tv companies have a technological advantage, having the necessary coaxial cable lines near 90 percent of American homes, but the costs of converting from one-way to two-way transmission have been too costly for large numbers of users to subscribe. Telephone companies are offering high speed access via their fiber optic trunk lines, but the cost of new lines in the “final mile” of service to homes and businesses is an expensive obstacle to its expansion. (Baran, 128–29). (While writing this paper I got a mail advertisement from Verizon, one of the long distance telephone companies, which I would ordinarily have thrown in the trash without opening, offering DSL (digital subscriber line) high speed Internet access, for about $50 per month, but for technical reasons this is only available to homes and businesses within a limited distance from service centers.) No matter how the technical question gets resolved of which combination of technologies will triumph as the major source for high speed internet access and digital broadcasting, the social and political question is how those technologies will be structured–who will control them and for what purposes. In the U.S., the legacy of past regulatory regimes may partly determine the outcome. The phone system has been regulated as a “common carrier”, treating all parties equally, without preferential advantage or discrimination or exclusion. Cable tv companies have been more proprietary, having a monopoly over content, driven by advertising like the broadcasting networks, and similarly regulated. If cable companies have their way, broadband access will be similarly structured, privileging their own proprietary content, and excluding or marginalizing that of other providers. However, broadband access via phone lines is no guarantee of continued open access, despite the history of telephone lines as common carriers.
As media themselves converge, so too are the corporate entities that control them, particularly after the deregulatory loosening of ownership limits in 1996: hence the wave of mergers, eg. AOL-Time-Warner. (For a regularly updated chart of the dominant media conglomerates, see Columbia Journalism Review’s “Who Owns What,” http://www.cjr.org/owners/ , and the following for a chart of the “big ten” media conglomerates: http://www.thenation.com/special/bigten.html . For a recent account of deregulation of ownership limits by the Federal Communications Commission, see http://www.mediaaccess.org/programs/diversity/index.html For an account of the “unprecedented torrent of mergers” just in the first year after the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and the likely effects on journalism see Neil Hickey, “So Big”, Columbia Journalism Review, Jan/Feb 1997, http://www.cjr.org/year/97/1/telecom.asp). For all their differences, these corporations share an end goal: a market environment freed of regulation on the pursuit of profit. So in the end, the corporate purposes to be served are unlikely to differ, whether the controlling industry descends from telecommunications, broadcasting, or computer software.
As the Center for Digital Democracy observes:
During the days of the slow, dial-up modem, the Internet--because it ran over
telephone wires--was regulated by telephone's common-carrier rules: a network
is required by law to be open to all communications traffic, and to treat all
information in a fair and non-discriminatory fashion.
These were the rules that formed the foundation for a new media capable of
producing the most diverse content in the history of mass communication. These
were the rules that allowed the birth of nearly 7,000 Internet service providers
(ISPs), as well as millions of Web sites of every conceivable variety.
But these rules that protected open access and the democratic architecture of the
dial-up Internet do not apply to cable and satellite high-speed (broadband) Web
access. And telecom companies are lobbying hard on Capitol Hill for deregulation
to end their open access requirements. http://www.democraticmedia.org/issues/openaccess/index.html
As Andrew Shapiro has observed,
“in the era of television (including cable and direct broadcast satellite) the challenge was to overcome the scarcity of the medium by saving a place on the dial--usually through legislation--for community access, educational shows and other nonprofit programming that would otherwise be ignored by profit-driven broadcasters. The task is different, however, in a post-television world of converged media, where "channels" are essentially unlimited and almost anyone is able to speak. The problem is not scarcity of space but the opposite: an abundance of space--and content--which creates scarcity of attention. In other words, the good stuff will be out there, but with so many competing information sources it will be difficult to get anyone to know about it, let alone listen.”
Andrew L.Shapiro, “New Voices in Cyberspace,” The Nation, June 6, 1998,
The key issue here is who will control the portals, the points of entry onto the Internet (eg. Yahoo, Google, AOL, MSN, Netscape, etc.), and how these will be structured. (The percentage of traffic through the top sites is already very high, according to Jon Falk.) If the “cable tv” model triumphs (or telecommunications is deregulated) the danger is that these portals will 1. offer differential service, high speed to the high paying commercial customers, low speed for the poorer individuals and non-profits, and 2. only some sites will be available; or almost as bad, only some sites will get their “rich content”–streaming video, etc.–carried by portals that in any case will want to feature the sites and content of their corporate affiliates.
The first casualty will be the equality of voice hitherto enjoyed on the Internet. (Berman and Morris, op. cit.). Also, as has been the trend in broadcasting, without explicit regulation, the featured content will be that which draws the largest audiences for advertisers, or which favors the content of the provider, to the exclusion of public service, civic functions, and the content of other providers, all of which will be marginalized if not excluded. In short, will some part of the Internet survive, prominently, as a public sphere, or will it all become a vast e-mall?
In this context, as Robert McChesney argues, it is unlikely that the Internet, with its unique technological features, will undermine the giant media corporations. As with the introduction of video, cable tv, television, etc., the newer media don’t replace earlier media, but alter and complement them. The media giants have several advantages in the struggle to control the Internet:
First, the media giants have digital programming from their other ventures that they can plug into the Web at little extra cost....Second, to generate an audience, they can and do promote their websites incessantly on their traditional media holdings....Third, as possessors of the hottest “brands,” the media firms have the leverage to get premier locations from browser software makers and portals....Fourth,...the media giants are aggressive investors in start-up Internet media companies [providing approximately one half of the venture capital]....Fifth, to the extent that advertising develops on the web, the media giants are positioned to seize most of these revenues. (McChesney, 170–72)
They will use these advantages to create synergies, for example, offering Internet buying opportunities for television viewers. Whether on or off the web, the goal will be, as in commercial broadcasting, to create an advertiser friendly environment, with little or no commitment to real journalism and public service. (McChesney, 174–77)
For some examples of “pro-social” portals, see:
Is Commercialism Inevitable?
What can prevent or mitigate the transformation of the Internet into a corporate-dominated, mostly commercial, inegalitarian marketplace? There will need to be appropriate regulation to preserve the openness, choice, privacy, public interest obligations for television, and universal access. The Center for Digital Democracy’s Broadband Bill of Rights is a useful beginning:
CDD recommends the adoption of the following 10
principles to maintain the basic open, democratic,
nondiscriminatory character of the Internet.
1. Choice: Open-access regulations are needed to
ensure that independent Internet service providers
(ISPs) and content producers will be able to offer
their services on all cable, DSL, and wireless
platforms, enabling users to enjoy the same full
range of programming via broadband that is now
guaranteed in the dial-up Internet.
2. Nondiscrimination: While it may be necessary to
arbitrate among competing claims on network
resources, no transport-management schemes (e.g.,
policy-based routing) should be used simply to favor
certain programming over other content, by artificially
constraining "competitive" or nonaffiliated fare.
3. Privacy: Existing privacy regulations (e.g., the
Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984, as
amended by the Cable Consumer Protection and
Competition Act of 1992) need to be extended to
include all interactive media, regardless of the means
of delivery, with oversight by the Federal Trade and
Federal Communications Commissions.
4. Open Systems: The Internet's "end-to-end"
architecture must be preserved, and to the extent
that "walled gardens" offer only a subset of Internet
content, they should be clearly labeled. So-called
"managed content areas," designed to highlight a
network owner's proprietary or affiliated content,
should include clearly marked "exit paths" to the
Internet at large.
5. Interoperability: Set-top boxes, which are poised
to become one of the most important household
appliances, should be both nonproprietary (i.e.,
interoperable among cable systems) and transparent
(i.e., user configurable). Subscribers should not be
expected to host "black boxes" (including hard-disk
video recorders that surreptitiously reserve a portion
of disk space for targeted advertising) as part of their
6. Public Interest Obligations: The public-interest
principle, more often than not honored in the breach
in the world of broadcast, and still under
consideration for digital television (DTV) broadcasters,
should inform the world of ITV as well. A small portion
of the extra capacity that broadcasters have gained
in the switch to DTV, as well as the enhancements
that cable operators will offer under ITV, should be
devoted to community-based informational and
7. Civic Content: The broadband revolution is too
valuable an opportunity to be squandered solely on
entertainment and commerce. The technology should
be harnessed, in some small measure, to serve the
needs of civil society, including enhanced campaign
coverage, community forums, cultural programming,
and noncommercial information exchange.
[On the topic of whether civic life in America has died, see “UNSOLVED MYSTERIES: The Tocqueville Files What If Civic Life Didn't Die?” By Michael Schudson The American Prospect, 12.4.00, http://www.prospect.org/print/V7/25/25-cnt1.html.]
8. Educational Opportunities: The new interactive
media of broadband should serve all aspects of
lifelong learning, meeting the educational needs of
young and old alike through pre-school programming,
supplementary classroom material, distance learning,
vocational training, and other educational fare.
9. Children's Programming: The meager
requirements for children's programming on television
(currently three hours of educational and
informational programming per week) should be
supplemented in the broadband era. Existing
protections against excessive and misleading
advertising during children's TV programs, similarly,
should serve as a guide for advertising in online
programming for children and youth.
10. Digital Divide: Even as we close the gap that
separates the connected from the unconnected, we
must make certain that new, more subtle forms of
digital inequity do not arise, in which the haves vs.
the have-nots are replaced by the haves vs. the
have-mores. Accordingly, Universal Service
requirements should be updated to include advanced
Jeff Chester indicates action that can be taken at local and national levels:
As a first step in developing a new public-interest agenda, we need look no
further than such communities as Portland, Ore., and Montgomery County, Md.,
where local officials have negotiated franchise agreements with broadband
network providers that contain important public-interest concessions. These
include setting aside portions of the bandwidth for noncommercial use,
securing new support for community applications, and installing high-speed
connections for civic organizations.
At the national level, just as we have carved out space for noncommercial
programming on radio and television (and, more recently, on direct broadcast
satellite systems), so should we set a portion of the broadband environment
aside for similar noncommercial fare (and, more important, for new interactive
public-interest services). As our experience with public broadcasting has
shown, however, bandwidth set-asides alone will not be enough to achieve
broadband's full programming potential. We have to find ways to sustain the
kinds of civic, educational and cultural services that will otherwise be lacking if
broadband is merely commercialized.
Companies such as AOL-TW, which control both conduit and content, also need to be held to a higher public standard. They will wield tremendous power in
the marketplace of ideas, which is why an open-access policy to ensure that
the Internet remains democratic and diverse is also needed. It is time for a
national dialogue with policymakers, these new media leaders, and the public
to ensure that the new broadband Internet serves as effectively as it sells.
“Remember Community Access as Broadband Technology Rises,” by Jeff Chester PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, 1 May 2000;
Chester’s last point underscores a theme repeated often by McChesney. It is not possible, in the face of the domination of the major media by corporate conglomerates, to just ignore them and try to create alternatives. The fate of the Internet itself will be crucially determined by the success or failure of media reform in other sectors. Robert McChesney recommends a four point media reform strategy that includes building up the nonprofit and noncommercial sector, increasing support for public broadcasting, strengthening regulation, and breaking up the media conglomerates (in an essay in Boston Review, with commentaries by critics,
Building nonprofit and noncommercial media. The starting point for media reform is to build up a viable nonprofit, noncommercial media sector. Such a sector currently exists in the United States, and produces much of value, but it is woefully
small and underfunded. It can be developed independent of changes in laws and regulations. For example, foundations and organized labor could and should contribute far more to the development of nonprofit and noncommercial media. ... Sympathetic government policies could also help foster a nonprofit media sector, and media reform must work to this end.
Public Broadcasting. Establishing a strong nonprofit sector to complement the commercial giants is not enough. The costs of creating a more democratic media system simply are too high. Therefore, it is important to establish and maintain a
noncommercial, nonprofit, public radio and television system. The system should include national networks, local stations, public access television, and independent community radio stations. Every community should also have a stratum of low-power television and micropower radio stations.
The United States has never experienced public broadcasting in the manner of Japan, Canada, and Western Europe.....At present, the federal government provides $260 million annually. The public system I envision-which would put per capita US spending in a league with, for example, Britain and Japan-may well cost $5-10 billion annually.
A powerful public radio and television system could have a profound effect on our entire media culture. It could lead the way in providing the type of public service journalism that commercialism is now killing off. This might in turn give commercial journalists the impetus they need to pursue the hard stories they now avoid. It could have a similar effect upon our entertainment culture. A viable public TV system could support a legion of small independent filmmakers. It could do wonders for reducing the reliance of our political campaigns upon expensive commercial advertising. It is essential to ensuring the diversity and deliberation that lie at the heart of a democratic public sphere.
[See also Starr, 2001; “U.S. Broadcast News Is in Crisis, BBC News Chief Executive Richard
Sambrook Tells Top Media Brass,” June 11, 2002,U.S. Newswire, http://www.usnewswire.com/topnews/first/0611-132.html]
Regulation. A third main plank is to increase regulation of commercial broadcasting in the public interest.... In three particular areas, broadcast regulation can be of great importance. First, advertising should be strictly regulated or even removed from all children's programming (as in Sweden). We must stop the commercial carpetbombing of our children. Commercial broadcasters should be required to provide several hours per week of ad-free kids' programming, to be produced by artists and educators, not Madison Avenue hotshots.
Second, television news should be taken away from the corporate chiefs and the advertisers and turned over to journalists. Exactly how to organize independent ad-free children's and news programming on commercial television so that it is under the control of educators, artists, and journalists will require study and debate. But we should be able to set up something that is effective.
As for funding this public service programming, I subscribe to the principle that it should be subsidized by the beneficiaries of commercialized communication. This principle might be applied in several ways....
[See also Jerold Starr’s proposal for a Public Telecommunications Trust Fund, http://www.cipbonline.org.]
Third, political candidates should receive considerable free airtime on television during electoral campaigns. In addition, paid TV advertising by candidates should either be strictly regulated or banned outright, as the exorbitant cost of these ads (not to mention their lame content) has virtually destroyed the integrity of electoral democracy here. ....
Even in these pro-market times, the corporate media have been unable to rid the public of its notion that commercial broadcasters should be required to serve the public as well as shareholders and advertisers. Hence, when commercial broadcasters were able to force the FCC in 1997 to give them (at no cost) massive amounts of new spectrum so they could begin digital TV broadcasting, the Clinton administration established the Gore Commission to recommend public service requirements to be met by broadcasters in return for this gift. Following the contours of US media politics, the Gore Commission has been little short of a farce, with several industry members stonewalling all but the lamest proposals. But we can hope that the Gore Commission will generate some more serious public service proposals, and provide the basis for a public education campaign and subsequent legislation to give them the force of law.
[For one proposal with respect to radio, see Michael P. McCauley, “Radio’s Digital Future: Preserving the Public Interest in the Age of New Media,” in M. Hilmes & J. Loviglio (Eds.). (2002). Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio. New York: Routledge, 505-530. For a summary of mostly failed attempts to establish non-commercial set asides in new media such as the Internet, see “Spectrum and access issues: Will there be a public lane on the infohighway?”,
Antitrust.. The fourth strategy for creating a more democratic media system is to break up the largest firms and establish more competitive markets, thus shifting some control from corporate suppliers to citizen consumers....
Local Community, Public Sphere, Involuntary Participation
The Internet has been a great tool for communication and organization for all kinds of groups, through e-mail, websites, listserv s, bulletin boards, community networks, and virtual communities empowering people with disabilities and other formerly isolated groups. Think, for example, how the IIS has been able to stay connected, and has been able to arrange for travel internationally over the last few years, through the simple tool of our e-mail list. And how, after being shut down by Milosovic, the radio station B-92 resumed broadcasting via the Internet. (See Andrew L.Shapiro, “New Voices in Cyberspace,” The Nation, June 6, 1998
Even if the worst happens, as McChesney acknowledges, the Internet will still “be a haven for all sorts of interactive activities that never existed in the past....an enormous and mostly uncensorable soapbox, open to a plethora of voices to speak, and be heard, worldwide at relatively little expense.”( 175). There is still a brief window of opportunity to make it more than this.
However, I want to close with some problems that are connected with the medium itself, that we must face even if the best happens and the Internet is regulated in such a way as to preserve openness, equality, and the rest. First, there is what Richard Sclove has called the “cybernetic Wal-Mart effect.” (Strictly speaking, this isn’t a problem of the medium per se, but of its application to e-commerce.) Just as when Wal-Mart moves into a community, the shift of even a fraction of shopping from downtown is enough to destroy a lot of local business, something that most of the Wal-Mart shoppers do not intend, so too, e-commerce could have a similar effect on local businesses–including cooperatives!–and with the demise of local business local community will also suffer. (“How a Commercially Driven Internet Threatens Democratic Civil Society and What To Do About It” (C) 2000 by Richard E. Sclove, Ph.D.
Second, one of the proclaimed virtues of the Internet is the capability it gives individuals to choose their own communities, and virtual communities of all sorts have sprung up across the globe, typically communities of interest, rather than geographically based communities. But this strength of the Internet also poses dangers, first, as people exchange face-to-face local community for the often more tenuous virtual communities, detached from place, often depoliticized, segregated by interest group and class. An overlapping problem is the further erosion of the public sphere into personalized communities in which like-minded people talk only to each other, and have fewer “unanticipated encounters” such as one has on a public sidewalk or watching the evening news, and also fewer “common experiences.” These, Cass Sunstein has argued, are essential for democracy, but may be weakened by too much individual filtering. (Cass Sunstein, “The Daily We: Is the Internet really a blessing for democracy?,” and comments by others, in the Boston Review, http://bostonreview.mit.edu/BR26.3/sunstein.html . See also his book, Republic.com, [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001]).
Sunstein argues that “general interest intermediaries” such as major newspapers and network broadcasters “expose people to a wide range of topics and views and at the same time provide shared experiences for a heterogeneous public....Typically they expose people to questions and problems in other areas, even other countries.” Sunstein, in making this claim, acknowledges that the intermediaries may be biased, ineffective, and monopolistic, and recognizes the benefit of the Internet, not to mention a proliferation of cable and satellite channels, in weakening media monopoly. His point is that, for better or for worse, mass media have performed an important civic function, that democracy cannot live without. Those of us who emphasize the capitalistic character and bias of the mass media thus are faced with a double task: to break the dominance of media by conglomerates and commercialism, and also to bring about a genuinely diverse, universally accessible, and well-supported public sphere. Even if the Internet is maintained as a proliferation of private voices, that is not enough.
From what I have argued earlier, it is clear that the Internet alone will not displace the media giants. So the real struggle is to prevent a “renormalization” of the Internet by these giants. That struggle will take place around issues of portals, equal access, public service broadcasting provisions, ownership limits, set-asides of bandwidth and public funding, etc.
The aforementioned process of exchanging local for virtual community, while it may begin as a choice for some, can become involuntarily imposed, as others are forced to go online as a poor substitute for the vanishing local community. (See Sclove, op. cit.). Quite apart from the effects on democracy, the effects on individuals may be harmful. Andrew Shapiro, although on balance optimistic about the potential for the Internet, warns:
technology always has unintended consequences, and social science research is beginning to show how this may be true for the Internet. Researchers who conducted one of the first longitudinal studies of the Internet's social impact, the HomeNet study, were surprised when their data suggested that Internet use increases feelings of isolation, loneliness and depression. Contrary to their starting hypotheses, they observed that regular users communicated less with family members, experienced a decline in their contacts with nearby social acquaintances and felt more stress. Although the authors noted the limitations of their findings, the study's methodology has been widely criticized. Until more conclusive results are available, however, what's important is that we take seriously the hazards outlined in the HomeNet study and attempt to prevent them from becoming worse or taking root in the first place.
(Andrew L. Shapiro, “THE NET THAT BINDS USING CYBERSPACE TO CREATE REAL COMMUNITIES,” The Nation, June 21, 1999
There is probably no way to turn the clock back on Internet engagement. None of us wants this; properly understood and utilized, the Internet can greatly enhance democracy and community. Concerning the dangers that the medium itself raises, the best route is to find ways to use virtual communities to enhance local community, to support local enterprise, including cooperatives and forms of economic democracy; and to cultivate communities that are internally diverse, to complement those that are like-minded. We must not forget to focus some of our attention on the problems of exclusion across the digital divide and discrimination through the control mechanisms that media giants are trying to impose, and coordinate Internet media policy initiatives with a wider agenda of media democratization and social and economic democratization. I haven’t said much about this wider agenda in this paper, but McChesney is surely right when he says that “Media reform will not, cannot, be won in isolation from broader democratic reform.” It can’t be the focus of a mass movement of its own. “But when combined with electoral reform, workers’ rights, civil rights, environmental protection, health care, tax reform and education, it can be part of a movement that can reshape our society.... [Moreover, media reform] is an area with unusual promise for the left as it can draw together people who might otherwise work independently of each other.... The fate of media reform and the U.S. left are inexorably intertwined, and in their fortunes reside perhaps the last, best hope of the United States to become a democracy ruled by the many rather than the few.” (318–19). [Note: As one example of this promise for the left, Bernard and Shniad show how deregulation has created new opportunities for alliances between telecommunications workers and consumers, and how they have successfully resisted neoliberal communications policies in Canada.]
Another example of new political convergences for the left –paralleling the technological and institutional convergences I mentioned earlier--is summarized by Vincent Mosco: The recent demonstrations in Seattle, Prague, Quebec and Genoa, as well as the global movements organized around culture jamming, are grounded in a powerful and unprecedented broad-based understanding of the convergence of labor and consumption in the world today. They understand the links between the Nike ads and sweatshops making running shoes, between familiar brands like Wal-Mart, Esprit, K-Mart, and J.C. Penny and slave labor....Convergence does not just mean plugging a cable modem into a PC; it also means the global convergence of labor and consumption practices which, in a multi-mediated world, drive home for the many what only a few understood over a century ago. Today, commodity production brings knowledge workers together and makes transparent the divide between them and the unskilled. It also brings consumers together and makes transparent the divide between them and those who have little . In essence, it makes it possible to unite the politics of labor, which, as Michael Denning reminds us, energized social movements of the first half of the twentieth century (Denning, 1996), and the politics of consumption, which drove much resistance in the second half, to create a politics of citizenship which transcends both labor and consumption with the active construction of a democratic world order. The convergence of labor and consumption and the politics of citizenship, which seem to mark so much of what gets simplemindedly called the anti-globalization movement, may be the most significant form of convergence to understand today. Perhaps it is laying the groundwork for a new internationalism. (Mosco, forthcoming).
My aim in this paper has not been to disparage the role of the Internet for economic democracy, but to call attention to the context of privatization, deregulation, and monopolization that is shaping the Internet, so that we do not fall prey to utopian illusions.
Acknowledgments and Sources
Thanks for helpful comments from Jon Falk, Michael Grillo, Michael McCauley, and Mark Seiler.
Elaine Bernard and Sid Shniad, “Fighting Neoliberalism in Canadian Communications,” in Capitalism and the Information Age, 165–77.
McCauley, M. P., Peterson, E. E., Artz, B. L. & Halleck, D. (Eds.). (in press). Public Broadcasting and the Public Interest. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.
Robert W. McChesney, Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious Times (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999)
Robert W. McChesney, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and John Bellamy Foster, eds., Capitalism and the Information Age: The Political Economy of the Global Communications Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1998).
Vincent Mosco, “Brand New World? Globalization, Cyberspace, and the Politics of Convergence,” in McCauley, et al., in press.
J. M. Starr, Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).
Cass Sunstein, Republic.com, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).
In addition to those Internet sources cited in the text, I found the following to be useful internet sites:
Media Access Project, http://www.mediaaccess.org/
Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility, http://www.cpsr.org/
Electronic Frontier Foundation, http://www.eff.org/
Digital Divide Network, http://www.digitaldividenetwork.org/content/sections/index.cfm
Electronic Privacy Information Center, http://www.epic.org/
Howard Rheingold, http://www.rheingold.com/
Seattle Community Network, http://www.scn.org/
techsoup (technology help for nonprofits), http://www.techsoup.org/
Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, Internet resources, http://www.fair.org/media-outlets/internet.html#media-beat
Commondreams (news and views for progressives), http://www.commondreams.org/
Project Censored, http://www.projectcensored.org/
Consumer Federation of America, http://www.consumerfed.org/backpage/telecom.html
Consumers Union, http://www.consumersunion.org/
Hoover’s Online (information about companies) http://www.hooversonline.com/
Current (periodical covering public tv and radio)http://www.current.org/
The Internet and Economic Democracy
My paper focused broadly on the relationship between the Internet and democracy. What are some ways in which the Internet is important specifically for economic democracy and self-management? In this short space I can only list some topics for discussion.
1. At the level of cooperative enterprises, the Internet affords opportunities for linkages a) between coops and their customers, now potentially and with increasing urgency, global in character; b) between coops and other coops, in local and perhaps regional, national and global networks; and c) between coops and other organizations such as unions, again at all levels.
2. One obvious topic is self-management of media workers, broached in my paper only briefly in the quotation from McChesney: “television news should be taken away from the corporate chiefs and the advertisers and turned over to journalists. Exactly how to organize independent ad-free children's and news programming on commercial television so that it is under the control of educators, artists, and journalists will require study and debate.” I offered an argument for self-management of the media in my book, Self-managment and the Crisis of Socialism.
This might be a topic with some relevance within alternative media, such as the growing Independent Media outlets.
3. New information technologies including the Internet are changing the character of work itself. For example, it becomes possible for more workers to work at home. For some this may be a desirable convenience, but for others it may be an imposed isolation from other workers, with costs of office space and the like downloaded onto the worker. The more undesirable aspects of homework may fall disproportionately on women. (See Peter Meiksins, “Work, New Technology, and Capitalism,” in McChesney, Wood, and Foster, 151–64.) The new technologies may be empowering for some workers, as when bank tellers acquire the capacity to access the complete records of the bank they work for (as Paul Adler has observed). But they also allow for increased surveillance and monitoring of workers, as when records are kept automatically of how many calls per minute telephone operators handle. This is such a vast and many-faceted field that it is hard to summarize it in a note.
4. Another worthy topic is the extent to which the idea of self-management is salient for knowledge workers as opposed to industrial workers. On the one hand the increasing differentiation of work according to skill makes it more difficult to form a common identity as workers. On the other hand, as Serge Mallet argued, skilled scientific workers may have a degree of control over work and motives to control it that exceed those of industrial workers. Charles Hecksher’s The New Unionism explores involvement in planning for new technology by workers in, among others, communications and chemical refining.
5. We also have to consider the contribution of information technology to globalization. The internet makes possible the flow of financial capital and information at greater speeds and at less cost, which makes the exploitation of workers in poorer countries a more attractive option to capitalist firms. (Peter Golding, “Global Village or Global Pillage?: The Unequal Inheritance of the Communications Revolution,” in McChesney, Wood, and Foster, 69–86.) Needless to say, this makes the goal of self-management harder to achieve.
6. Although technologies are not neutral, and the Internet is already being transformed into a virtual mall with differential access, the technology still has the potential to make socialist planning more feasible than ever before. (See Andy Pollack, “Information Technology and Socialist Self-Managment,” in McChesney, Wood, and Foster, 219–35. Pollock refers readers to one model of participatory planned socialism that is premised on the use of new information technologies, W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell, Towards a New Socialism, (Nottingham, England: Spokesman, 1993), online at
Although I don’t share the authors’ rejection of market socialism, I think market socialism nonetheless requires a degree of planning, and for that their discussion of what new technologies have to offer may be quite relevant. The most compelling arguments for the market have less to do with technological feasibility of processing information than they have to do with the quality of information provided and the motivations of producers.
7. A topic I have scarcely mentioned but which is of great importance for the history of the Internet and its future development is intellectual property rights. Side by side with the proprietary software model of Microsoft, is the phenomenon of “open source software,” software developed and continuously upgraded online by the community of users, and given away as a public good. The latter, closer in spirit to the public ethos of scientific publicity, seems to me more “socialist” in character than privately owned and copyrighted software. Although Microsoft’s closed Windows software has become a major platform for software applications, open software continues to be an important constituent of the Internet. Consider two examples. First, “to this day, two-thirds of the servers on the World Wide Web are Apache servers,” developed as a free code project. Second GNU/Linux, developed as an alternative operating system to Unix when AT&T made the Unix code exclusive and unfree, “is now the fastest-growing operating system in the world.” Both are examples of what Lawrence Lessig calls “commons”–controlled neither by the state nor by privately owned corporations, but free to all to use. Their success demonstrates that a common resource can be created and developed, and can give rise to tremendous creativity. People do not need to convert it into private property to find incentives to develop it. Nor is the only alternative to privatization development through state command. These commons are, we might say, successful examples of self-management in the information age.
Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: the fate of the commons in a connected world (New York : Random House, 2001), 56, 53–54. See also his Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace (New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1999). For a review of the former, see Steven Johnson, “Marketplace of Ideas or Tag Sale?” The Nation, December 17, 2001, http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20011217&s=johnson