Information on the Internet

by Manise Jacobi

excerpted from the book

War, Lies & Videotape

International Action Center, 2000


The Telecommunications Act passed by the U S. Congress in 1996 crippled safeguards meant to protect the American public and ushered in a new era of media robber barons by permitting already powerful companies to acquire ownership of even more telecom production, programming and distribution operations. The 1996 Act may have been one of the most significant pieces of legislation in this century, referred to by some as "the biggest public giveaway," yet it was covered in mainstream media merely as a business story. The goal of Free Speech Internet TV's founding was to find a way for progressive media to survive-and even thrive-in this hostile environment.

The seemingly inexorable trend toward media centralization, which is addressed extensively elsewhere in this book, is also extending to the Internet, the most recent hope for a " truly democratic medium." Free Speech Internet TV was launched in 1995 in hopes of utilizing newly developed video streaming technologies to effect social change. We are also currently attempting to start a full-time progressive television network. In November 1998, the FCC issued rules requiring Direct Broadcast Satellite (DBS) operators to set aside four percent of their channel capacity for non-commercial, educational and informational programmers. Free Speech Internet TV (along with Interviews, Deep Dish TV and a number of other independent networks) has been working to get a DBS channel, and this goal is within reach...

There is broad agreement that the Internet acquires features not found in any other medium. The Internet is endowed with an adaptability to multiple methods of distributing information. Internet users are no longer restricted to traditional text and still graphics, and are rapidly utilizing new audio and video streaming technologies. Nothing prohibits the online version of a newspaper from including video clips in its articles. In cyberspace, the physical boundaries between text, radio, and television no longer exist, but a more important distinction is the relatively low cost of making information available to a large audience.

Unfortunately, the democratic elements in the new technology are rapidly disappearing. Streamed media, for instance, requires higher-and more expensive-bandwidth (data transfer speed). New connectivity technologies such as wireless and cable modems offer much higher download speed than upload, virtually minimizing user interactivity. The many-to-many architecture of the net is being replaced with technologies resembling the traditional centralized and commercial media outlets. This is why corporate interest has pushed for analogies that replace interactivity with concepts like 'Internet channels' and 'netcast stations.' The business press covering the new technology is quite frank in its description of future Internet users as " passive consumers."

This rapid movement towards commercialization should be understood in the context of the existing economic system and not the immunity of any new technology. While the Internet has been subsidized by taxpayers for more than two decades, the possibility of using it to serve very narrow interests was understood from its inception. U.S. Vice-President Al Gore's adaptation of the term 'information superhighway' serves as a useful analogy to his grandfather's initiative in the 1950s to build a national highway system which would serve the military-industrial complex. " The main beneficiaries of the new capabilities in information [technology]," writes Herbert Schiller, are "the new transnational corporations, the intelligence, military, and policing agencies."

But the fundamental factor which keeps progressive voices from being heard is not embedded in the technology itself. It's not that these voices don't exist. Browsing the member listings of APC (Association for Progressive Communication) or Znet demonstrates that activism and noncommercial media is alive and well in cyberspace. In fact, public virtual communities have existed in the periphery since the 1980s and constituted much of the news distributed globally. This was before the big giants logged on.

Before the Internet was commercialized in 1995, Howard Rheingold wrote about the remarkable potential of the emerging technology in his 1993 book The Virtual Community. His early warnings are particularly relevant today: " [T]he technology will not in itself fulfill [the potential of bringing enormous leverage to ordinary citizens at relatively low cost]; this latent technical power must be used intelligently and deliberately by an informed population. More people must learn about that leverage and learn to use it, while we still have the freedom to do so, if it is to live up to its potential. The odds are always good that big power and big money always found ways to control new communications media when they emerged in the past." 8

The landscape of the Internet has since changed dramatically. While there has been growing participation from grassroots organizations, their ability to attract an audience is increasingly overshadowed by large conglomerates who are investing heavily in the new medium. These are companies like

Disney and USA Networks who seek to extend their domination into the new medium. Portal sites and start-pages exert a strong influence on the medium and what Internet users see and don't see. Search engines, a focal starting point for many users, are beginning to solicit money from those willing to pay for " top placement." Amazon, the largest online bookseller, charges publishers for added visibility on their site. Jeff Bezos, Amazon's chief executive, suggested that "retailers [are] pioneering a new medium that shouldn't be held to the same standards as, say, the book-review sections of newspapers and magazines, which strive for independence from advertising concerns."

The challenges we face are therefore no different from those that progressives face within the television, radio, and print world. There is too much corporate control of information distribution. The task at hand is for progressives and advocates of democracy worldwide to pool their resources and utilize a medium that could serve the interests of people instead of corporations. Certainly, my work at Free Speech Internet TV during the last two years offers persuasive evidence that this goal is I within reach.

Webcasting and the Free Speech Internet Project

The terms 'webcasting' or 'streamed video' simply refer to the method by which digital video is continuously streamed over the Internet. By way of metaphor, it works the same way a cable channel is 'streamed' through the cable wires to your home. This technology grew out of the need to offer live audio and video content to Internet users who had been confined to text and still graphics. The challenge has been the ability to compress digital video to the point were it could be streamed over regular phone lines. The pioneer behind RealVideo, the ubiquitous video-streaming player with over 50 million users worldwide, is Foundation for National Progress board member Rob Glaser. As early as 1994, Glaser envisioned the prospects of using the new medium to create and distribute 'progressive' media. He started a company called Progressive Networks, which was to become a multi-million software company and renamed RealNetworks.

Free Speech Internet TV was one of the first to utilize RealNetworks' software, and we began offering streamed audio and video as early as 1996. Our programming ranges from video magazines like the New York-based People's Video Network and the London-based Undercurrents, to grassroots media such as Food Not Bombs and the Chiapas Media Project. We also feature interviews and lectures, short experimental films, video poetry, radio shows, and a wide range of documentaries. While we try to maintain a professional standard, we are committed to the idea that ordinary people are capable of producing meaningful media reflecting their daily issues. In 1997, we launched Do-It-Yourself Television (DIYTV), on which we provided outlets for people to create their own content and stream it through our servers. It may sound like America's Funniest Home Videos, and in fact the video quality was a close resemblance, but the material we continue

I to receive reflects the wide range of issues people are really interested in.

Our Challenges Ahead

... our biggest challenge now-and my objective in this paper-is to let people know that there exists a place where they can not only watch meaningful media, but where they can create their own programming. Unfortunately, the discrepancy between those who are connected and those who aren't conforms to the prevailing class division and the disparity between industrialized nations and the Third World. There also exists a problem of estrangement to new technologies like video streaming in particular and the Internet in general. But it is our optimistic belief that this can only improve through the important work of activists and social organizations which seek to transfer the ownership of communication outlets from corporations back to the people. For this movement to be effective, it has to be part of a broader movement for democracy, equality, and social justice. As Robert McChesney puts it, the " extent to which there is non-elite participation into communication policymaking may be a barometer for the level of democracy in a society."

This movement has to be a global one, since media conglomeration is principally a global trend. Cyber activism is endowed with the remarkable feature that it lacks geographic boundaries. With increased globalization and concentration of power, the struggles of people are more and more the same all over the world. The Internet could serve as a place of convergence; where progressive voices are heard from different parts of the globe.

War, Lies & Videotape

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