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.)
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
"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."
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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