May 1 1996

Net Loss:

Corporate Moves Could Doom the Internet's Participatory Culture

The change is subtle, and misleading by design, but the Internet is in full transition from a participatory interactive communications network to a broadcast medium dominated by electronic commerce.

The transition is occurring under the guise of making the technically daunting Internet cheaper and easier to use. At first glance, this new promise by corporate America to liberate cyberspace from its high-tech mantle appears to be a victory for ordinary people. However, as with most new technology, there’s a hidden agenda that obscures the true cost of the deal.

AT&T, MCI and other phone companies are in a race to make Internet access as simple and cheap as standard phone service. Computer and consumer electronics companies like Oracle, Apple/Bandai and Sega Enterprises want to create cheap “network computers” that allow Internet access without the high cost of a fully-equipped personal computer. Both goals are being widely celebrated as needed breakthroughs to make the Internet accessible to a wider spectrum of the population.

However, if one combines the effects of the two developments, a subtle change occurs: The Internet shifts from being a participatory medium that serves the interest of the public to being a broadcast medium where corporations deliver consumer-oriented information. Interactivity would be reduced to little more than sales transactions and e-mail.

AT&T recently announced that as many as 80 million of its long distance customers can now get five hours of Net access for “free” over the next year. The telecom giant also claimed that it will make it easier to go online and eliminate the annoying technical glitches that currently plague the Internet experience.

But what does AT&T get in return for holding our hand and leading us into the chaotic and often anarchic world of the Internet?

Our loyalty and our trust, it hopes, followed by our money. Since most of AT&T’s new customers are novices to the Internet, they will also be highly susceptible to the company’s “suggestions” as to what makes up the Internet experience. “The Internet can be a daunting place for people who suddenly arrive there,” said Tom Evslin, vice president of AT&T WorldNet Service. “To just dump new users on the Internet is about as friendly as taking them out of town and dropping them into Times Square and asking them to find their way around.”

For this reason, AT&T said, it is moving beyond providing just technical services to offering “edited navigation, directories and customer care to make it easy to use the Internet.” This includes a directory of more than 80,000 Internet sites, including descriptions, ratings and reviews. It also includes an Internet “Exploration Station” that provides a series of theme areas for family entertainment and education.

Of course, AT&T’s corporate guidance is not motivated by the public interest, and it would be naive to assume the corporate giant will direct any Internet user to a location that might criticize or reflect negatively on its corporate interests. One should not expect to find a critical analysis of communications policy or the Telecommunications Act featured in an AT&T directory.

“Advertising revenue streams are part of our business plan,” said Evslin, acknowledging AT&T’s commercial mindset. “If you think of us as being the front door to the Internet then there’s the opportunity for advertisers. It’s not very glamorous, but think of us as a billboard in a subway station.”

The other side of this coin is a new stripped-down Internet access appliance that’s been dubbed the “network computer.” Since it’s essentially a dumb terminal with little memory and no hard disk drive, this device depends on the Internet for its operating software.

Priced at under $500 and jokingly called “WebBoy,” the network computer does little more than allow its user to browse the Internet and do simple transactions, such as playing games, using e-mail or shopping online.

Add AT&T’s advertising approach together with the cheap WebBoy appliance, and what do you get? How about the functional equivalent of interactive commercial television. Good old advertising-based, consumer-oriented mass media just like we have today, plain and simple.

Under the AT&T/WebBoy scenario, the vision of a truly democratic, participatory interactive media gives way to crass commercialism. Internet users are reduced to “consumers” whose reason for existence is to continue a relentless cycle of buying and expending goods and services.

This trend toward a broadcast model for the Internet is expected to accelerate even more as higher bandwidth delivery systems become available to the home. The cable television industry, seeing its future in interactivity, is racing to build high-speed, high- capacity systems that will handle full-motion video as well as audio, graphics and text information.

@Home, a new service of Telecommunications, Inc. (TCI), the nation’s largest cable systems operator, and LineRunner, a new service of the No. 2 operator, Time Warner, are expected to deliver data to the home at speeds hundreds of times faster than conventional telephone lines. Both media giants are testing their services now, and hope to begin widespread deployment over the next couple of years.

These mega systems are not just high-speed connections to the Internet, but entirely new networks that actually circumvent the Net to offer more image-rich interactive multimedia productions.

“It would be very easy to sell just speed, but we see a lot of things we can do to add value to the product,” said William Jasso, vice president of public affairs for Time Warner’s Northeast Ohio division, in an interview with the trade newspaper Inter@ctive Week (2/26/96).

In addition to high speed access to the Internet, the Time Warner service will offer the brand-name commercial online services, local content and Time Inc.’s national databases. @Home is currently courting partnerships with content providers with bandwidth- hungry, feature-rich applications that can make effective use of its super-high-capacity, 10-megabit-per-second network.

This race to create bigger data pipelines means the production values–and hence the cost to information providers–of interactive media will soon rise sharply. While all sites on the Internet’s World Wide Web are limited today by the network’s slow transmission capacity, that will not be true a few years from now. Those with big production budgets will be able to effectively exploit the added capacity, while those with lower budgets will have to be more creative in order to draw an audience.

The situation will be akin to the difference today between the high production value of network television versus the more modest production value of public access programming. Audiences are traditionally drawn to higher production value and tend to reject programs or information presented with lesser perceived value.

At the recent Media & Democracy Congress in San Francisco, Andy Sharpless, vice president of technology for Progressive Networks of Seattle, told a group of political activists and non-profit organizations that they have a window of no more than five years to compete on an even playing field with large corporate sites on the Internet.

“There will come a point when high bandwidth production values will make it hard to do what one can do now–that is, become a small Internet publisher with a small capital investment,” Sharpless said. “There is a glorious moment and we are in it now. You can be in on the early days and be perceived by the audience to be as good as those big guys. But that day will change.”

With the Internet clearly moving toward greater commercialism, some also worry that efforts will soon be made to squeeze out all messages that don’t fit the mainstream corporate/government agenda- -again, a progression toward a medium that looks more like today’s commercial television.

As promising as the Internet is to the goal of media democracy, said Voyager Company founder Bob Stein, a political battle of “remarkable proportions” looms ahead over the Net’s shaky common carrier status.

Stein, a leading electronic publisher also speaking at the Media & Democracy Congress, noted that the Internet has not yet been used by a powerful leader to organize people with a non-mainstream agenda. He predicts that in today’s highly reactionary political environment, any serious challenge to those in power will be met with censorship.

“Does anybody here really believe that the powers that be would allow a situation where somebody like Malcolm X could have his own channel and talk to everybody everyday?” he asked. “Seems to me impossible.”

Against a backdrop of rapid technological change, clashing political agendas and a corporate gold rush mentality, the Internet–perhaps the first new mass communications medium in half a century–is now very much in play. The trend to commercialize the Net is overwhelmingly clear. Whether the medium can retain its early promise as a democratic forum of free expression remains an open question.