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
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
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.
Lies & Videotape