13 Grass Roots

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An AT&T survey of U.S. broadcasting in 1926 determined that approximately one-half of U.S. stations were operated to generate publicity for the owner's primary enterprise, while one-third were operated by nonprofit groups for eleemosynary purposes. Only 4.3 percent of U.S. stations were characterized as being "commercial broadcasters," while a mere one-quarter of U.S. stations permitted the public to purchase airtime for its own use.


--Robert W. McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy


It was clear to most people on the Net even before anyone started doing fancy demographic surveys that most early online users were white, well educated, relatively affluent, and male. As soon as Vice President Al Gore started talking about a National Information Infrastructure, one of the first questions was how to ensure universal access, a dream all net.visionaries share, even if some of them do hate America Online. (The best-known dissenting view comes from physicist Clifford Stoll, who argued in his 1995 book Silicon Snake Oil that schools and libraries should be spending their money on books, not computers.)[1] Part of the reasoning behind this dream is the notion that universal access means increased democracy and freedom with greater public access to public information than has been available before, and that this greater accessibility may overturn today's power structures. And yet, many of these same net.visionaries reject government regulation or intervention as an aid to this process, and believe instead in the force of free markets and competition: what may be more important than universal service is universal interoperability, so the Net's standards remain ever open.[2]


"I've been very encouraged by the way in which the demographics of the Internet have shifted dramatically over the last couple of years," John Perry Barlow said in a July 1996 debate at Harvard University on the future of presidential campaigning in a networked world. "There are many more languages ... available than there were two years ago, and it's shifting rapidly. But it's not shifting because of any governmental or political process. It's shifting because the users are making it so." Barlow's co-panelists represented the Democratic and Republican national conventions, and the focus of their comments was notably on the Net as a way to broadcast candidates' campaign material, not as a collaborative two-way medium where candidates might enjoy a new level of interaction with their constituents. Or, as Barlow put it, "The Internet is not a mass medium. And everything I've heard today talks about treating it as though it were. It's not a broadcast medium, and it's not part of the United States. It is cyberspace, which is an extra-territorial and anti-sovereign condition that may completely eliminate anything but the most ceremonial role for the presidency of the United States."[3]


Or perhaps not. Great democratic advances were predicted for radio, too, and yet in the United States it became a commercially dominated medium largely controlled by a few corporate interests. This could also happen to the Net. The cooperative, pioneering spirit in which people wrote tools for their own use and shared them freely is already dying in the rush to cash in and find advertising sponsorship. The focus on the Communications Decency Act drew attention away from the other provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Bill, which greatly deregulated the telephone, cable, and broadcasting industries.


Journalism professor Robert McChesney has compared that bill to the Federal Communications Act of 1934, which paved the way for today's tight commercial control of the broadcast media:


The debate in Congress over the future of telecommunications policy has disregarded issues of democracy and fairness. Lawmakers have focused instead on gutting regulations that impede the profitability of companies seeking to develop new communications technologies. And so, the current legislative process has been guided by the same assumptions that led to the disastrous Communications Act of 1934: namely, that competition among corporations in the marketplace will provide the most efficient and democratic communications system. The tightening


    

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