The Internet and Democracy
by Michael W. Howard

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, Disney, 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, and describe how it is being threatened. 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 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. 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.

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,

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.


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 ( 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/cable-casting content becomes available  on the Internet. Broadband will enable much higher speed transmission of information and 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. (Nicholas Baran, “The Privatization of Telecommunication,” in McChesney, Wood, and Foster, 123–33, 128–29). 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. All of the corporations share a common 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 Andrew Shapiro has observed, in an era of converged media, 

“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 danger is that these portals will offer differential service, high speed to the high paying commercial customers, low speed for the poorer individuals and non-profits, and 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. (Jerry Berman and John B. Morris, Jr., “The Broadband Internet: The End of the Equal Voice?”, CFP, April 2000, 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)


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. The Center for Digital Democracy¬s Broadband Bill of Rights is a useful beginning including ten principles “to maintain the basic, open, democratic, nondiscriminatory character of the Internet”: choice of service providers, nondiscrimination concerning content, extension of privacy rights to all interactive media, open systems (versus “walled gardens”), interoperability (the “set-top” boxes should be user configurable and useable on multiple systems), public interest obligations, civic content, educational opportunity, children¬s programming, and overcoming the digital divide.

Acknowledgments and Sources

Thanks for helpful comments from Jon Falk, Michael Grillo, Michael McCauley, and Mark Seiler.

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).

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