It is not too soon for progressives to ponder, "what would we do without the Internet?" for it is folly for us to take the Internet for granted.
Consider: the right wing has captured AM talk radio, cable news, and six Bush-friendly conservative corporations control virtually all commercial broadcasting and publishing. The only remaining free and diverse mass media marketplace of ideas is the Internet. It would be naive to think that the corporate establishment does not also have its sights set on the Internet.
No doubt about it: the progressive Internet is a threat, for it has recently displayed considerable political clout. The Internet promoted and coordinated the international anti-war protests that brought millions into the streets. It cost Trent Lott his majority leadership in the Senate. It has been the primary stimulus to the Howard Dean campaign. And it was a prominent source of the public indignation that led to the Congressional overturning of the FCC ownership ruling.
As ever more citizens lose confidence in the credibility of the corporate media, they are turning to the Internet, and through it to international and independent sources of reliable news of the world and of their own country and politics. It is a trend that is continuing and accelerating.
Surely, the grand Poobahs of the corporate-GOP-media complex will not sit still for this! But what can they do about it? Unfortunately, there is much they can do.
First of all, they can privatize the Internet, and there appears to be significant movement in this direction.
The primary obstacle to restriction via privatization is the open access or common carrier rules. Not long after Alex Bell called for Mr. Watson, it was decided that there would be no restrictions on the use of the telephone system. Accordingly, the telephone network has always been open to all users, and the telephone companies have been forbidden to interfere with the message or to restrict its access to anyone.
Because the government is showing no interest (yet!) in abolishing common carrier rules for the phone system, all appears fine and dandy as far as the dial-up networking is concerned.
However, there are no such assurances for broadband Internet access: DSL, cable and satellite. Michael Powell's FCC, with the enthusiastic endorsement of the cable industry, is eager to lift common carrier rules from cable and DSL transmission.
Accordingly, Karen Charman of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) writes:
If the Bush administration lets large media conglomerates and local telephone companies have their way, the Internet as we know it – that free-flowing, democratic, uncensored information superhighway – could soon be a thing of the past.
The Internet itself is not going away. Rather, technological advances, changes to the rules governing its use and the continued consolidation of media empires are combining to turn it into a conduit of commerce, booby-trapped with barriers and incentives designed to keep users where dollars can be wrung from them As a result, a lot of freely accessible information and websites may become difficult or impossible to connect to – hindering the efforts of those posting that information to reach others.
And Jeff Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy writes:
The Internet's promise as a new medium – where text, audio, video and data can be freely exchanged – is under attack by the corporations that control the public's access to the net, as they see opportunities to monitor and charge for the content people seek and send.
The motives for this transformation are not simply political – not merely an attempt to "FOX-ify" the Internet. Rather, the Internet is seen by commercial interests as an underutilized money-machine, which means that the Internet may soon suffer the fate of broadcast spectrum, which was originally designated, not as a commercial enterprise, but as a common "public resource." And so, Jeff Chester continues:
... This business model will erect high economic and technical barriers to entry for non-commercial and public interest uses of the high-speed Internet, threatening civic discourse, artistic expression and non-profit communications. In moving to implement this highly centralized vision for broadband, the cable industry does not imply ignore the democratic and competitive history of the Internet – it is actively hostile to it.
Accordingly, the restriction of progressive opinion may not first appear as a simple and crass corporate pronouncement, "we don't agree with your ideas, so we won't allow you to put them on the net." Such high-handedness would invite law-suits. Instead, dissenting individuals and non-profit organizations would simply be priced out of the Internet, while the four-figure applications fees and three-figure monthly charges would be chump change for marketers and right-wing publications and foundations.
What then of our tradition of the free press (in contemporary terms, free media)? The Internet, like the press and broadcast media will succumb to A. J. Leibling's rule: "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." And so, if Rupert Murdoch and Richard Mellon Scaife buy out the Internet and then refuse access to "treasonous" progressives, then they will be doing so of their own free will. Thus, we will be told, freedom of the Internet will be preserved. Right?
Of course, there will be no shutdown of the entire Internet. There is too much commercial investment involved. You will still be able to order from Victoria's Secret, Sears, Eddie Bauer and Amazon, etc. Also, Free Republic, The Drudge Report, and other right-wing sites will be safe. But individual entrepreneurial progressive sites like The Crisis Papers will be out of luck, and out in the cold.
The Henry II Ploy
In Jean Anouilh's play, Becket, King Henry, having lost control of his one-time friend and current Archbishop, Thomas á Becket, mutters to a bunch of his drunken buddies, "who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?"
The rogues take this as a royal decree, and proceed to dispatch Becket in the cathedral. Henry, of course, later denies he ever had such a horrible thing in mind. These days, this is called "plausible deniability."
Similarly, one can imagine a White House conversation between Dick Cheney and Karl Rove: "who will rid us of this meddlesome Internet," (as they curse the day that Al Gore "invented" it). Bush, if he is within earshot, then asks, "what is the Internet?"
If the word goes out from the highest offices to shut down the liberal/progressive voices on the Internet, we can be confident that an impermeable curtain of "deniability" will be in place between those who initiate and those who execute this order.
Soon after that order is given, a new array of exotic and selective viruses and worms will infect and shut down politically incorrect web sites, while commercial and right-wing sites are unaffected.
If notice is made of this selectivity, presumptive blame will be placed upon "right wing zealots," and Ashcroft's Justice Department will promise "prompt and effective investigation" – to be followed, of course, by no action at all.
The net effect will be that dissenting Internet voices will be effectively silenced.
The Camel's Nose
"Of course," we are to be told, "we endorse the Internet as a medium of free and wide-ranging expression and opinion. But surely, no one can object if we keep the Internet free of child pornography. After all, 'freedom of the press' doesn't allow libel or slander."
OK, no kiddie porn. But watch out for the libel/slander business. The law does not allow for "prior constraint." (cf. the Pentagon Papers case). One is free to print or broadcast libelous statements, and then face the legal consequences. It is those consequences after the fact that deter libel.
"But surely we can't allow the terrorists to use the Internet for their nefarious schemes!"
If we concede this point, we've given away the game. For who decides who is a terrorist and thus to be denied access to the Internet? Apparently, John Ashcroft's Justice Department. And the USA PATRIOT Act's definition of "terrorist" is notoriously and dangerously vague. According to Section 802 of the act, domestic terrorism includes acts within the United States that are "a violation of criminal laws" that "appear to be intended to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion" or "to intimidate or coerce a civilian population."
By this definition, peace and civil rights demonstrators and protesters, along with union pickets, are terrorists. So too, those who speak out in their defense (i.e., who "scare peace-loving people with phantoms of lost liberty" - John Ashcroft). Ban Ashcroft's definition of "terrorists" from the Internet, and by broad implication, most progressive individuals and organizations, along with their opinions, will be excluded.
And so, if the Internet is to remain available, this may be so only due to our determined, relentless, and creative efforts to keep it open and free.
What is to be done?
Dozens, perhaps hundreds of the readers of this article will have much better answers to this question than I can offer. After all, I am just a poor philosopher who has arrived late to the Internet scene. So I am asking your assistance. While I will offer a few proposals, I sincerely invite you to send me your suggestions (to firstname.lastname@example.org).
We have basically two questions: a) how do we maintain our access to the Internet, and b) if, despite our best efforts, we are shut out, how then do we get our message out, and coordinate our efforts?
Keeping the Internet open and free
This should be our first order of business. The Internet "commons" must be protected by law, which means legislation from the Congress. It must also be protected from Michael Powell's FCC. The latter typifies the problem we face with the Bush Administration. For the FCC, which was established to protect the public interest, has become a primary threat to the public interest.
However, the FCC can be contained, as we discovered to our delight this past summer when the June 2 FCC ruling expanding the scope of corporate broadcast ownership was overturned by the Congress. Bush may veto that legislation, but if he does it will cost him politically, for 99% of the unsolicited communication to the FCC opposed their ruling and led to the Congressional rebuke. So clearly, an aroused public can make a difference.
But only if the word gets out. And so, public interest organizations such as FAIR and the Center for Digital Democracy must keep a watchful eye on ongoing developments regarding Internet control and ownership, and they must continue to inform their public – which means, primarily, Internet users. Reciprocally, such organizations need and deserve public support.
Never forget, that the public constituency in support of a free and "open access" Internet is enormous. It is reported that half the households in the United States access the Internet, and a third of American households get at least some of their news from the Internet. If word gets out and is widely disseminated that "their" Internet is about to be transformed into a marketing tool and a propaganda mouthpiece, and furthermore that the ordinary citizen will have to pay exorbitant fees to maintain a personal website, the public outcry could far exceed that which was prompted by the June FCC decision.
Quite possibly, the commercial interests now greedily eyeing the Internet, and their accomplices in the Bush Administration, are deterred to no small degree by that very possibility.
"Eternal vigilance," said Thomas Jefferson, "is the price of liberty." It may also be the price we must pay if we are to preserve the Internet commons.
After the Internet:
Alas, we must also think seriously about what we must do if, despite our best efforts, we lose our access to the Internet.
The progressives have, for the most part, been excluded from talk radio, the print media, and the airwaves. (There are worthy exceptions, of course – the Krugmans, the Goodmans, the Frankens, etc. – but their rarity only validates the right-wing media bias).
But the protests of free men and women, denied one outlet, will seek and find another. "Truth crushed to Earth, will rise again!" (William Cullen Bryant).
But how? Here are some suggestions:
American dissenters might find assistance abroad, in the "overseas Internet." They could seek, and likely would be welcomed, at such websites as The BBC and The Guardian of England, The Toronto Star, and Scoop of New Zealand. It is one thing for a government to silence dissent within its borders. It is quite another to attempt to stifle dissent abroad. Any attempt by the Bush Administration to do so, or to block "entrance" of dissenting views into the US would be acutely embarrassing – like the Soviet Union jamming broadcasts of the BBC or Radio Free Europe.
Some brave souls might try to break into the "privatized" Internet, inviting legal retaliation from the corporate owners. A court challenge to the restriction of access could prove to be productive.
If open access is denied to broadband, then the dissidents might still have access to dial-up service. Presumably, the phone system will still be a common carrier.
Samizdat. The dissident movements in the Shah's Iran and in the Soviet Union had no access whatever to the state-run media – indeed, their attempts to get their message out were ruthlessly repressed. And yet, eventually, they triumphed. Their modes of communication, although primitive, were manifestly effective.
Today, even if progressives were totally excluded from the media (not likely), they have far better alternatives than the Iranian and Soviet dissidents.
In Iran, the dissident message was distributed via audio cassette tapes which, when received, were copied and then passed on. Similarly, in Soviet Russia, where ordinary citizens were denied access to duplicating and copy machines, manuscripts were laboriously copied on typewriters, with five carbons, and then distributed with the solemn promise that the recipients would also produce carbon copies.
If the American political "underground" is reduced to hand-to-hand distribution of "subversive" material, it will enjoy enormous advantages denied to the Iranian and Soviet dissidents. Rather than taking several hours or even days producing five copies of contraband opinion pieces, all that and more can be accomplished in a few minutes at the computer where disks and CDs can be easily produced. And while the Soviets could restrict access to copiers and duplicators, there is simply no way that the digital genie can be put back into the bottle. There are too many computers out there, and they can not all be recalled and shut down without shutting down the economy as well.
However, it is most unlikely that we would be reduced to copying and passing samizdat disks and CDs hand to hand. An American government reduced to such levels of suppression and thought-control would probably not be tolerated, given our political traditions. But one never knows. Who among us could have imagined what we have come to in just three years?
The Voice TO America. Despite the corruption and downfall of the once-magnificent American media, there remains in the United States, one untouched beacon of journalistic integrity: The Voice of America. The VoA understands that the best, indeed perhaps the only, guarantor of credibility is an uncompromising allegiance to truth and to scrupulous confirmation. (The same can be said for the BBC – now under attack by the British right-wing for the offense of exposing the lies of the Blair government in its servile allegiance to the Bush's war in Iraq).
Ironically, this impeccable source of news is not available to the American public, for according to its charter, Voice of America broadcasts and news copy are not to be distributed domestically. Thus the audience of the Voice of America, in fifty languages throughout the world, gain unbiased and accurate information about the United States, that American citizens are hard-pressed to obtain from their own media.
Recently, I watched a CSPAN presentation by the retired Deputy Director of the Voice of America, Alan Heil, author of Voice of America – A History (Columbia University Press). As Mr. Heil described the service of the VoA to the peoples of the world, I could only wonder, "but why not to us in the USA – where we need it most of all?" Well, the VoA charter forbids, and for good reasons.
So my suggestion: Given the deterioration and the present peril of the American democracy, perhaps it is time for "The Voice TO America." Of course, the aforementioned journalists in the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand and elsewhere are individually performing a fine service for us with the insight and integrity that we once enjoyed from our own media. And that magnificent British publication, The Guardian, is about to launch an American edition.
Still, sixty years ago the United States came to the defense of democracy in Europe. So perhaps it is time for the European Union to return the favor, now that our own democracy is in peril. If the Internet, the last refuge of the dissenting American progressives, is lost (or even before this happens), it will be time for the establishment of "Radio Free America" and "The Voice TO America."
A final appeal and an invitation
These are a few ideas that come immediately to mind, as I contemplate the possibility that progressives may one day be denied access to the Internet.
So in closing, I re-iterate my plea. Many of you who read this are far more technically savvy about computers, the Internet, and media. You will have still more, and no doubt better, ideas about how we might protect our access to the Internet and, failing that, continue to get our message out by other means.
Please send you comments to me at email@example.com. For my part, I promise to follow-up this article with an account of your most imaginative and feasible suggestions.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website, The Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers"