4. The Privatization Of The Internet
SOURCE: THE NATION, 7/3/95, "Keeping On-Line Speech Free: Street
Corners in Cyberspace;"* Author: Andrew L. Shapiro
SYNOPSIS: You may not have noticed, but the Internet, one of
the hottest news stories of 1995, was essentially sold last year. The
federal government has been gradually transferring the backbone of the
U.S. portion of the global computer network to companies such as IBM
and MCI as part of a larger plan to privatize cyberspace. But the crucial
step was taken on April 30, when the National Science Foundation shut
down its part of the Internet, which began in the 1970s as a Defense
Department communications tool. And that left the corporate giants in
Remarkably, this buyout of cyberspace has garnered almost no protest
or media attention, in contrast to every other development in cyberspace
such as the Communications Decency Act, and cyberporn. What hasn't been
discussed is the public's right to free speech in cyberspace. What is
obvious is that speech in cyberspace will not be free if we allow big
business to control every square inch of the Net.
Given the First Amendment and the history of our past victories in
fighting for freedom of expression, it should be clear how important
public forums in cyberspace could be -- as a way of keeping on-line
debate robust and as a direct remedy for the dwindling number of free
speech spaces in our physical environment.
There already are warning signs about efforts to limit on-line debate.
In 1990, the Prodigy on-line service started something of a revolt among
some of its members when it decided to raise rates for those sending
large volumes of e-mail. When some subscribers protested, Prodigy not
only read and censored their messages, but it summarily dismissed the
dissenting members from the service.
There are at least three fundamental ways that speech in cyber-space
already is less free than speech in a traditional public forum:
First, cyberspeech is expensive, both in terms of initial outlay for
hardware and recurring on-line charges. For millions of Americans, this
is no small obstacle, especially when one considers the additional cost
of minimal computer literacy.
Second, speech on the Net is subject to the whim of private censors
who are not accountable to the First Amendment. Commercial on-line services,
such as America Online and Compuserve, like Prodigy, have their own
codes of decency and monitors to enforce them.
Third, speech in cyberspace can be shut out by unwilling listeners
too easily. With high-tech filters, Net users can exclude all material
from a specific person or about a certain topic, enabling them to steer
clear of "objectionable" views, particularly marginal political
views, very easily.
If cyberspace is deprived of true public forums, we'll get a lot of
what we're already used to: endless home shopping, mindless entertainment
and dissent-free talk. If people can avoid the unpalatable issues that
might arise in these forums, going on-line will become just another
way for elites to escape the very nonvirtual realities of injustice
in our world. As the "wired" life grows exponentially in the
coming years, we'll all be better off if we can find that classic free
speech street corner in cyberspace.
As the supreme Court said in Turner Broadcasting v. FCC (1994), "Assuring
that the public has access to a multiplicity of information sources
is a governmental purpose of the highest order, for it promotes values
central to the First Amendment."
SSU Censored Researcher: Fritz Rollins
COMMENTS: The main subject, according to investigative author
Andrew L. Shapiro, is "how the rapid corporatization of cyberspace,
with the assistance and acquiescence of government, is squeezing out
public spaces on-line that are truly dedicated to freedom of expression."
Shapiro points out that his piece urges, "in contradiction to the
libertarian bent of most writing in defense of free speech on the Internet,l
that government take an active role in safeguarding the virtual public
"This is a topic which has not received sufficient, if any, exposure
in the mass media. While there has been endless coverage of cyberporn
and the Exon Bill's attempt to thwart obscenity on the Internet, and
of myriad other cyberspace-related issues, I've seen little out there
on this specific subject. Of course, there have been relevant straight
news pieces on huge new on-line services (e.g., the Microsoft Network)
and on mergers (e.g., Murdoch's News Corp. buying the independent Delphi
"People are seeking critical analysis of the emerging information
technologies, but most of what they're getting is off-the-cuff and not
very thoughtful or just straight out of the P.R. releases of the big
hardware, software, and Internet gateway companies. I don't think many
people realize what an opportunity may be passing them by -- to have
a potentially inexpensive, democratizing, grass-roots form of communication
and information-gathering at their fingertips. When it comes to the
Internet, most folks assume that government is the enemy of free speech
because of irresponsible legislation like the Exon Bill. What they don't
realize is that corporate-owned cyberspace will probably be a lot more
stifling, since private on-line services who censor Net users are totally
unaccountable under the First Amendment, which only protects citizens
from government regulation of speech."
Shapiro said it was easy to point out whose interests are being served
by the limited coverage given the corporatization of cyberspace: "The
private on-line services that are gobbling up the Net, like America
Online, CompuServe, Prodigy, etc. It's also not surprising that most
of these services are now owned by, or in partnerships with, bigger
media conglomerates that own most of the mass media that has failed
to cover the privatization of cyberspace."
As for recent developments, Shapiro warns, "the conglomeration
of on-line services continues, advertising is starting to dominate the
World Wide Web, Web site addresses are now being auctioned instead of
given away, and there is generally less room for the free-wheeling,
open chat that was more typical of the earlier cyberspace incarnations