Remember when the growth of the Internet was supposed to level the playing field between large and small companies and between rich and poor individuals and organizations. Sure, the wealthy and large could buy more ads, but the cost to set up a web page or blog—and later to build a network through social media—made it easier for the little guy to compete. It seemed as if the world could really operate according to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s idealistic notion that “if you build a better mousetrap the world will beat a path to your door,” without the investment of millions into marketing communications.
Inherent in the promise of the web was the principle of a free market for good, services and ideas, undistorted by size, clout or spending.
But no market is ever absolutely free. The biggest players seem always to make sure of that. Without the constraint of government regulations, over time the large and connected will always crowd everyone else out of the marketplace, whether we are talking about widgets or political views. Large companies once hired children to work in factories until child labor laws. They sold adulterated food until the Pure Food & Drug Act of 1906 and other laws. They got together to fix prices until the government stepped in. They opposed minimum mileage and seat belts in cars until the federal government stepped in.
But when it comes to the Internet and other media of mass communications, it seems that the government only steps in to help the big players.
We currently face three controversies which together could rip to shreds any hope of obtaining the state of grace predicted by Internet utopians. In fact, if the federal government makes the wrong decision in all three of these areas, we may end up living in a de facto state of censorship in which we can exercise freedom of speech but only the largest corporations and the richest people will actually be able to get through to significant numbers of people:
- The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposal to end net neutrality
- The merger of Comcast and Time Warner
- The unfair monopolistic actions taken by Amazon.com against Hachette Book Group
Let’s look at what’s at stake when it comes to each of these issues:
Net neutrality is the idea that Internet service providers (ISP) and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differently according to user, content, site, platform, application or type of equipment. Earlier this year, the news media reported that the FCC is considering a new rule that will permit ISPs to offer content providers a faster track to send content for a higher fee. It means that Netflix will be able to pay more to ISPs like Verizon, Time Warner, Comcast, Cox, Frontier, Windstream and others for the right to have its programming delivered faster than other online streamers. The ISPs will be able to charge the Republican and Democratic parties more than smaller political groups to deliver their messages over the Internet. No longer will you wonder why a website is slow to download—it likely won’t be because of a bandwidth problem; no, in all probability the owner of the slow-to-load website couldn’t afford to pay the extra freight for faster delivery of the information.
Gone will be the days of an Internet level playing field.
Gone, too, will be any possibility of diversity in television programming, if the FCC allows the merger of Comcast and Time Warner into a cable TV leviathan that will control one third of all cable viewing. As it is, there is little difference in the offerings of the various cable networks around the country. Wherever you go across the country, you see pretty much the same menu of network offerings, “Law & Order” reruns, reality shows, religious shows, right-wing cant masquerading as news, centrists masquerading as progressives and sports, sports, sports. But it will only get worse as one company will make the decision for what networks to buy for one third of all cable TV viewers. BTW, the merged Comcast Time Warner will also control 40% of the wired broadband Internet market.
Instead of merging, both Time Warner and Comcast should be forced to split themselves so that no company controls more than two or three percent of cable TV screens. We should return to the days when no company could own more than a very small number of TV and radio stations—five at the most—and no company could own both a TV station and newspaper in the same region. There are now six or seven companies that control most of the mass media, which is why we see a sad lack of diversity of opinion; why most of every daily newspaper looks like the daily newspaper in every other town; why you find Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity on so many radio stations.
The Amazon-Hachette situation presents another aspect of the consolidation of the news media. Amazon controls two-thirds of the market for digital books and about 30% of all books. Amazon and Hachette have been in some tough negotiations: Amazon wants the behemoth French publisher to accept concessions on their revenues from e-book sales, so Amazon can make more and charge the public less. Because Hachette is resisting, Amazon had removed the link on its website that enables customers to preorder Hachette books, slowed down delivery of Hachette books and not restocked popular Hachette titles. I would think that this kind of pressure from such a large player with no pre-existing editorial policy definitely fits the description for an unfair monopolistic practice, which is illegal. (Now if Amazon claimed to be a Christian bookseller could justify not selling a Hachette book that promoted atheism, but Amazon declares itself to a marketplace for everything).
Hachette is another media behemoth, but if Amazon gets it way it way, it will make it much harder for both the large and small publishing houses to turn a profit. And think of this: today Amazon is messing with a publisher for financial reasons. In the future, it might decide to mess with a someone for political reasons, much as Wal-Mart used to make record companies provide special censored versions of CDs with lyrics that did not fit Wal-Mart’s conservative moral stance.
And yet we have heard nothing from the Justice Department on this issue. Maybe they’re too busy rousting immigrants. It doesn’t seem as if any of our Senators or Congresspersons with a special interest in freedom of speech has heard that Amazon is trying to unfairly and illegally push its weight around. I know that some of them are very busy defending the right of a Duck Dynasty star to make rancid sexist and racist statements. Other publishers and writers are wringing their hands, but there have been few if any calls for a boycott of Amazon. Although Amazon is easy to use—and you can also order your dish soap and sox at the same time—it is not the only place to buy books or anything else on the Internet.
Imagine the worst case scenario occurring: the merger goes through, net neutrality ends and Hachette knuckles under. The Internet will become the province of large corporations and moneyed individuals. The chances of a book from a little publisher becoming a best seller through the Internet grapevine will be negligible. The possibility of an article in a small magazine not backed by big money getting onto the Google News or Yahoo! homepage will shrink to almost nothing. A small record label might not be able to download music directly to customers and be forced to give a cut of its profit to Amazon or some other large Internet merchant. Whether it’s a book or a TV show, the little guy will need more resources to compete and so will be unable to do so. A handful of large corporations will control our public discourse even more than they do now.