Another skirmish won and lost in three-way battle for control of the Internet

The one-day protest against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA)  accomplished its objective: With three major sponsors running from the proposed legislation, SOPA and PIPA backers are scrambling to revise the law to make it more palatable to the Wikipedia’s and Googles of the world.

The Stop SOPA/PIPA campaign follows the series of battles to preserve network neutrality, which means that telecommunications companies don’t offer different rates to consumers based on content or type of service. Over the past few years, there have been five attempts to give companies like Verizon and ATT the right to create tiered plans for content. All have failed, as consumers have clamored to maintain the free flowing access to the Internet and all of its websites that network neutrality creates.

In case you’re cheering what looks like the latest victory for the people, think again. While many consumers and small companies have an interest in maintaining Internet rules that encourage a free marketplace of ideas and products, it wasn’t the actions of the small fry that won the battle. It was one set of enormous, multinational corporations defeating another.

When it comes to controlling the Internet, there are really three groups of very large companies. These companies have the money to hire lobbyists, contribute to political campaigns, support research and launch public awareness programs such as yesterday’s Wikipedia blackout. (Readers, please alert me if someone else has developed the same or similar nomenclature or has a better way of looking at the power structure as it involves the Internet.)

Here are the three Internet power centers and what their interest is in controlling the Internet:

  1. Internet content creators, such as Disney, Warner Brothers and the music companies, which want to control the use of intellectual property so they can make more money.
  2. Internet access providers, meaning telecommunications companies, which want to put a meter on the flow of the electrons that carry Internet information so they can make more money.
  3. Internet organizers such as Google, Yahoo!, Wikipedia, Amazon, Netflix, Facebook and Twitter, which have an interest in keeping everything free and free-flowing. Segments of this diverse group have their own side issues, i.e., the portals and social networks want weaker privacy laws and the merchants such as Amazon that are large enough to organize content are interested in continuing the tax free ride on Internet sales.

So far the consumer has won virtually every Internet control battle because there are three large corporate groups engaged in conflict: two can always fight off the other, or sometimes one just doesn’t put a dog into the fight, leaving two smaller groups to battle it out.

Unfortunately, the larger battle has already gone against those who believe in a free marketplace of ideas, in which the truth reigns over false ideas and misplaced beliefs.  No matter how free the Internet remains in terms of access to content and bandwidth, the selection of content has already been severely limited by the concentration of content providers resulting directly from the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  

That law allowed companies to own more media properties and led directly to the sorry state of the our media free market: seven or eight large multi-national conglomerates, many of which grind rightwing political axes, control an enormous amount of content on the Internet including most “news” and mainstream entertainment, because these companies control the content available in every other media. If you don’t believe me, plug in “Little Mermaid” and compare the results to any recent book of poetry published by an independent little press.

Unfortunately, Google doesn’t really care much where the content originates, as long as it can organize it for users and charge advertisers for the right to appear on results pages. And when Netflix is looking to do a deal to make more content available, it actually likes dealing with a few big guys. Thus, there is no group of big companies ready to take the side of the consumer.

Without a group of big companies on our side, it will be exceedingly hard for consumers to influence Congress to pass a law that limits media ownership and forces large media enterprises to break up into many smaller businesses. But there is precedent for breaking up a company or industry for the public benefit, such as the 1911 dismantling of Standard Oil and the splitting apart of AT&T in 1984. 

Dismantling media properties in the United States is not as high on the list of priorities for progressives as other goals, such as increasing income taxes on the highest incomes, removing the cap from taxable income for Social Security, investing more money in public schools, exiting Afghanistan, pumping more money into mass transit and alternative energy and implementing much more rigorous environmental regulations.  But as we gradually take the country back from the rightwing fringe, let’s not forget about bringing more voices into the marketplace of ideas by limiting the size of any one voice.

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