The Common Good
November-December 2000

The Telecommunications Land Rush

by Danny Duncan Collum | November-December 2000

In the 19th century, with much sweat and blood, immigrant labor gangs pushed a railroad
across the newly continental United States.

In the 19th century, with much sweat and blood, immigrant labor gangs pushed a railroad across the newly continental United States. They were followed closely by land speculators laying claim to trackside spots that would become cities and towns. Here’s how it worked: First the American people,

through their government, acquired access to the Western lands. Then the American people, through their government, installed forts and deployed troops to protect the railroad route from the just interference of the robbed and cheated native people. Then, when all the hard work was done, risk-taking entrepreneurs came along and got gloriously rich on all this new terrain.

Something like that has been happening in our day as well. In the last quarter of the 20th century, the American people, through their government, created a worldwide computer network. The architecture and design of the network was perfected by academic researchers (on government grants), machine-heads who were just hacking for the love of it, and various freelance weirdos. Then, when the Web was fast and convenient enough to be useful in most people’s daily lives, the big money people took over.

No surprises here. That’s the way things go in America—the state creates the environment in which people can take care of business for themselves. And it can be argued that the American method has worked pretty well. But nowhere is it written—in our Constitution or our DNA—that private interests must be allowed to pile up their wealth without any consideration for the common good.

When broadcasting came on-line in the early 20th century, it was strictly regulated by the new Federal Communications Commission. This had partly to do with limiting content (no curse words, for example), but mostly it had to do with protection of the public interest and democratic access to the means of communication. There were things like the "equal time" rule for political candidates and the "fairness doctrine" that gave public dissenters a mechanism for demanding access to the public airwaves. There were also public service requirements and limits on advertising minutes per hour.

ALMOST ALL OF that regulatory machinery was dismantled in the Reagan era, and we need it back. When massive concentrations of private wealth move into the business of information and communications, someone has to look out for democracy. If not, the next generation will only be able to think the thoughts and speak the ideas that have corporate sponsorship.

A quick example: As we speak, a telecommunications land rush is on to move the Internet off existing phone lines and onto the lines used for cable TV. The full communications potential of the Internet can only be realized with this bigger, faster pipeline, which will make it possible to put out high-quality video on the Internet. As a result, phone companies, cable providers, Internet companies, and film and TV "content" producers are all furiously negotiating to get into business with each other.

Right now the federal government’s badly withered regulatory arms are taking up the case of the mega-merger between AOL and Time Warner. AOL, we know, is the largest Internet service provider. Time Warner owns a passel of cable channels, a movie studio, several record labels, the old Time-Life print empire, and a whole bunch of other entertaining, informing, and highly profitable stuff. It is also, coincidentally, the second largest provider of cable TV service. And Time Warner’s cable operation is also partly owned by the nation’s largest cable provider, AT&T. So, one way or another, the new AOL-Time Warner combination will have an already existing portal into a majority of American households.

The danger in this grand convergence is that the Internet will become more and more like cable TV. You’ll be offered a bundle of services on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. You won’t be prevented from doing your own Web surfing, say, to check out the video of some labor conference on globalization. But your new friends at AOL-Time Warner can make that competing, or nonprofit, video come into your machine so slowly as to be practically useless. And they can do the same with any video you try to send out. They already have the technology to do this, and AT&T is already preventing its cable Internet customers from sending out more than 10 minutes of video at a time.

If regulators at the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission don’t step in and block the AOL-Time Warner deal, in a very few years the Internet will no longer be a wide open free range of information, images, and ideas. It will be tamed and branded, and we’ll never know what we may have lost.

DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.

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