The single biggest threat to the emerging grassroots media is that, as the Internet gets faster, not all content will be treated equally.
The giant broadband providers — phone companies and cable systems — are talking about charging a fee to Web services that want to take advantage of the higher transfer rates and fatter pipes that will come online in the next few years. The inevitable result is that Web sites such as Amazon.com, eBay and, for that matter, multimedia news sites such as NYTimes.com and MSNBC.com will pay for those blindingly fast speeds — but that citizen-journalism projects such as H2otown, Universal Hub and the Narco News Bulletin will get left in the dust.
For anyone who hopes that technology will push the media in a more democratic direction, this is an incredibly dangerous development. Worse, it takes place at a time when deregulatory zeal permeates the White House, Congress and the FCC, leaving little hope for government intervention.
Ken Belson’s article in today’s New York Times is just the latest of many I’ve seen recently on the two-tiered (or many-tiered) Internet to come. Belson treats this simply as a business and consumer story, with little or nothing about its implications for the broader culture. In fact, this goes much deeper than that. Holding prices down is a worthy goal, but it’s just a tiny part of the real story for consumers — that is, for citizens.
Jeff Chester, who heads the Center for Digital Democracy, has been warning of this development for years now. Check out the CDD’s Digital Destiny Campaign to get an overview of the issues. Here’s a taste:
The broadband revolution — still in its infancy but offering the potential for a new, more democratic media system — has arrived…. But in order for that potential to be realized, community leaders, media activists, and representatives of the nonprofit sector must become more actively engaged in the broadband build-out process. Without question, the new high-speed networks are headed our way, but whether they simply deliver more of the same conglomerate culture, or whether they open new opportunities for civic discourse and cultural expression, will depend on the actions that communities take today.
In a related matter, Adam Liptak wrote in yesterday’s Times that a move is afoot to hold Web publishers responsible for odious content such as apartment ads that discriminate on the basis of race, ethnicity and religion. Liptak focuses primarily on Craigslist, which allows users to post ads — in most cases free of charge — with no intervention on the part of the site’s staff.
Liptak quotes people who argue that the immunity Internet service providers enjoy is no longer necessary or good public policy. Law school dean Rodney Smolla tells Liptak, “The Internet has now matured to the point that we are beginning to see that the ordinary rules of law that govern our lives in physical space should also govern our lives in cyberspace.”
Well, much as I hate to side with those who engage in discrimination, I think it’s important to point out that the more-than-a-century-old telephone business is not thought to have matured in the way that Smolla thinks the Internet has. You can’t sue the phone company for the illegal activities that callers may engage in for a very simple reason: the calls aren’t screened, and it would be impossible to enforce such liability.
In a similar vein, Liptak reports that Craigslist receives two million ads every month — and has a total of 19 employees. What Smolla is arguing, in effect, is that Craigslist’s very business model ought to be illegal — that is, unless it commits to hiring enough employees to screen every ad, then it should be sued into oblivion. And what would appear to be a blow against those who engage in discrimination would, in fact, be aimed primarily at the grassroots media.
For too many powerful people, the goal is a biggest, better, faster Internet — dominated by the same handful of corporate giants that control most of the rest of our media. The battle is being fought right now.