Jul 1 1994

Superhighway for Sale

Will the Public Have Room on the Road?

Ever since Vice President Al Gore propelled the metaphor of the”information superhighway” into the public consciousness, Americans have been repeatedly assured that the digital communications revolution will enhance the lives of everyone–rich and poor–by creating instant, low-cost access to the world’s greatest information resources. Yet to observe the continuing feeding frenzy among the world’s most powerful media corporations, the real prospect of the superhighway is starting to resemble an endless, ad-cluttered strip mall through cyberspace.

The intense in-fighting among cable, telephone, broadcast, computer,publishing and other corporate power brokers is focused on how to slice the huge new media pie among themselves. So far, the public’s interest in the information future is waiting at the far end of the line.

The scramble to commercialize the information superhighway came after the Clinton administration’s decision that private industry, and not the cash-starved federal government, would build any new national communications infrastructure. Since then, potential network users became”customers” and entertainment programming supplanted public-interest information as the predominant form of “content” that would flow through the system’s pipelines.

At the 1993 Big Picture, an annual entertainment business symposium, Home Box Office chair Michael Fuchs threw cold water on the idea that the huge increase in channel capacity of the new networks will result in greater diversity.

“Everyone says 500 channels,” said Fuchs. “The independent filmmakers raise their hands and say now you are going to have to buy my movies. No! Those500 channels are going to be reconfigured old channels. There’ll be eight HBOs, multiplexed. There will be 100 pay-per-views and there will be 10,000shopping channels!”

Over the past year it has become increasingly apparent that the public interest is virtually irrelevant to the media giants. “Nobody wants to go out and invent something and invest hundreds of millions of dollars of risk capital for the public interest,” said John Malone, chairman of Tele-Communications, Inc., the nation’s largest cable TV operator (ABC World News Tonight, 9/30/93). “One would be fired as an executive of a profit-making company if he took that stance.”

The only way to insure public rights on the information superhighway is to write them into law, said Dr. Herbert Schiller, a media analyst and critic who has written extensively on information highway issues. “Not only does it have to be written into law, but you must have implementation backup by strong organizations,” he said.

Enter Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Media Education. Chester’s group has launched an initiative to educate and organize consumer advocacy groups on information superhighway issues.

“The information superhighway is being designed to meet the needs of Madison Avenue,” said Chester. “We want 20 percent of the lanes on the superhighway turned over to non-profit and public interests.” This 20percent public area, Chester said, would be an “electronic commons,” where free access would be available to all citizens.

“A vibrant telecommunications civic sector will be an essential counterbalance to the commercial forces which will dominate the information superhighway,” Chester testified during a subcommittee hearing on telecommunications policy at the U.S. House of Representatives.

“Hundreds of channels will be continually barraging viewers with programming and advertising tailored to the most desirable demographic groups and households,” Chester said. “The bulk of services will be shopping channels and pay-per-view programming. Indeed, phone and cable executives are openly discussing ‘pay-per-hour’ or ‘pay-per-minute’ schemes. High-speed printers will sit atop TV sets, continuously printing coupons and other sales pitches.”

Chester, whose efforts to insure public access are being backed by nearly100 public interest organizations, including FAIR, also insisted that the concept of universal service–a fundamental element of today’s telephone industry regulation–be applied to the information infrastructure. “By universal access we mean everybody has to have access to an instrument that provides some kind of interactive communications services in their home,”he said. “A certain amount of information or programming should be made available at little or no charge to all citizens.”

The funds to make universal access available must come from the corporations that will enjoy enormous profits from the information infrastructure, said Chester. “We have to force these companies to pay for it out of their revenues and profits,” he said.

But Schiller warned that universal access is not enough. “Universal access is a very deceptive term. Sure it’s desirable, but it’s got to be backed up by further kinds of support, so whoever does have access can also really use it.”

A long-time observer of information technology, Schiller says he is pessimistic about the eventual outcome of the battle for control of the information superhighway. “The question basically is: Who’s going to run the show? Will it be run by telephone companies, cable companies and entertainment conglomerates, or will it be run for the public interest?” he asked.

“The [media companies] will obviously give you more commercial TV, video games, home gambling…[and] a lot more of what you’ve already got,”Schiller continued. “At the moment those interests are strong and are prevailing.”

Frank Beacham writes a column for Alternet on communications technology issues.