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Digital Democracy

A Response to Reclaiming the Commons

Jeff Chester and Gary O. Larson

8 David Bollier has done an admirable job of outlining the many ways that the private has eclipsed the public in contemporary American society. Of course, some would prefer to view this phenomenon more charitably as the triumph of rugged individualism, in which risk-taking entrepreneurs, recognizing an opportunity when they see one, capture assets that might otherwise languish under an indifferent public stewardship. Seize the day!—or so the argument runs—and then sell it back to the masses one minute at a time, 24/7.

Of the various aspects of commons enclosure that Bollier discusses, we are most concerned with the interplay of old media and new, in which many of the same corporate behemoths that currently dominate television and cable have now set their sights on the Internet. Recent attacks on traditional ownership-diversity safeguards, for example, waged in the courts and at the FCC, represent an effort on the part of a handful of entertainment conglomerates (AOL Time Warner [AOLTW], General Electric/ NBC, Disney/ABC, Viacom/CBS, and News Corp/Fox among them) to extend their hegemony into the digital frontier. With restrictions lifted on the number of media outlets that any single company can own, those conglomerates will be poised to gain control of the vital "last-mile" Internet connections to our homes. And with a seemingly complicit Congress and FCC (who regard broadband deployment to be much more important than broadband democracy), there is no guarantee that the spirit of competition, diversity, and openness that has long been the hallmark of the traditional, "narrowband" Internet will prevail in the broadband future. Combining cable's closed architecture with the cross-promotional techniques in which AOLTW and Disney excel, the new broadband environment will soon join the ranks of privatized public assets.

Even now, at the dawn of the broadband era, the traffic patterns of the World Wide Web have begun to resemble those of commercial broadcasting. In the first five years of the web's existence, for example, when it was growing at an almost exponential rate, diversity prevailed. But by 1999, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, 110 companies controlled 60 percent of users' online time. Just two years later, that figure had been reduced to a mere 14 companies. And today, with the growing dominance of AOL Time Warner and Microsoft, the democracy that was once the Internet is beginning to look more and more like oligarchy.

There are any number of approaches to resisting these commercial incursions into the "electronic commons," and our organization in Washington, D.C., the Center for Digital Democracy, has recently released a "Twelve-Step Program for Media Democracy."1 But in relation to the "information commons" that Bollier discusses, there is one approach, which we call Community Resource and Broadband Assessment, which strikes us as especially promising.

This three-phase approach looks first at the social, civic, and cultural assets that help define a particular community. These include cultural institutions, churches, schools and libraries, parks and recreational facilities, nonprofit organizations and social service agencies, community-based groups and volunteer associations—all of a community's resources, in short, that are neither beholden to market forces nor derived from the powers of the state. These are the components of civil society that tend to be overlooked in our twin preoccupation with Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. But despite the obvious attractions of those two dominant thoroughfares, we mustn't lose sight of another important part of the cultural landscape, the town square—"our shared assets and civic inheritance," in Bollier's words—which will prove so vital to the future health of our democracy.

Second, if we are to realize the full democratic potential of the broadband revolution, we need to determine the capacity of our local telecommunication infrastructure to serve civic as well as purely commercial ends. Will the new cable broadband networks, for example, ensure open access and nondiscriminatory transport of all programming? Will the more sophisticated set-top boxes that are just now being introduced operate in an open, non-proprietary fashion? Are the cable system's public-, educational-, and government-access (PEG) channels being upgraded for full, two-way digital communications? Is there a high-speed institutional network (I-net), through which municipal and civic resources can be linked? Are there other opportunities for community networking that take full advantage of the new broadband networks? Such is the community broadband assessment that will subject private telecommunications providers and municipal governments alike to public scrutiny, to determine if they measure up to the civic networking standards necessary for our democracy to flourish in the digital age.

Third, there must be a concerted effort, drawing on public and private resources alike, to bring these two forces—our community assets and the broadband infrastructure—together in a meaningful fashion, not as a mere add-on to a market-driven delivery system for entertainment, sports, and endless sales pitches. Instead, the digital commons must be built into new broadband networks at the outset, with open-access regulations, updated PEG commitments, and the necessary funding in place to ensure the ready availability of public-interest programming to all interested citizens.

This Community Resource and Broadband Assessment, then, involves more than Bollier's call for "a reckoning of what belongs to the American people [as] a first step to recovering control of common assets and protecting them for public purposes," however important such an accounting might be. And it is more than merely preventing "the appropriation of community-generated value by proprietary interests," however vital it may be to guard against such misuse of the public trust. The kind of community assessment we have in mind not only takes the measure of our "shared wealth and social life," it also creates a blueprint for linking these assets to the new communications infrastructure, so that they might be shared more widely. Not an easy task, to be sure, but one that we cannot afford to neglect.<


Jeff Chester directs the Center for Digital Democracy in Washington, D.C.
Gary O. Larson manages the Center for Digital Democracy's Dot-Commons project.

Click here to return to the new deomocracy forum, Ruled by the Market? with David Bollier and respondents.

Note

1 Available on our web site, http://www.democraticmedia.org. [1 July 2002]

Originally published in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston Review

 



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