Sunday, May 28, 2006

Save Free Speech on the Web from Corporate Greed

Just a point to consider. Ever since the Cold War, Americans have been convinced that capitalism leads to greater democracy and freedom. We have conflated an economic system with a political system.

It's true that communism, as it was practiced behind the Iron Curtain, went hand in hand with a centralized dictatorship. But it's also true that the social democracies of Western Europe were an odd mixture of limited socialism, free enterprise and a democratic form of government. The truth is there can be many mixed systems that work far better than our capitalistic one, with its dedication to the dictatorship of the market.

China, in fact, is living proof that a country doesn't become more democratic or more free simply by opening its markets. Although it has a thriving market economy and many newly minted entrpreneur millionaires, there is still little freedom in China. Its ruling class still governs with an iron grip.

And here in America, the greed of the big corporations is just as likely to stifle true democracy and freedom as it is to encourage it. As has been pointed out, for example, a free press is only free to those who can afford to own the press. We've all witnessed the growing lack of diversity of opinion in the broadcast media, where one or two large corporations, like Channel One, have bought up most of the smaller, once independent radio stations across the nation. Local programming has fallen and so has the rich mix of different voices and divergent opinions that was once the hallmark of local radio.

Now, the Internet also is being threatened, as this article in today's New York Times shows. The telecommunications conglomerates want to start charging fees for use of the Web. By charging fees, they would be creating a tiered system that would favor large commercial sites that could afford steep fees while marginalizing smaller, independent sites. Those who couldn't afford the pricey fees would have access only to lower speeds or perhaps no access at all.

This is an issue that has made for some strange bedfellows. The Christian Coalition is allied with because both realize that their organizations could lose access to the larger web community if a telecomm company with a board of directors hostile to their particular political point of view were to be able to control their access.

James Sensenbrenner and John Conyers have sponsored net neutrality legislation that met with surprising sucess in clearing the House Judiciary Committee.

And group has already gathered more than 700,000 signatures on their petition. So, go there, already, and sign it too.

Meanwhile, the corporate giants are leading a deceptive campaign of their own. They have been promoting a "hands off the Internet" campaign that makes it appear that they want to protect the current truly free Web from government interference. Nothing could be further from the truth. What they really want is to keep the government from regulating them and their ability to take a free Web away from the rest of us for their own greedy benefit.

If they succeed, we will see less diversity of opinion. Far fewer blogs. It will be the rise of the corporate monopoly Web with little input or access for the rest of us. If you think the mainstream media slants the news now, you ain't seen nothin' yet. Without a free Web, another alternative voice will be lost. The Web is truly one of the few remaining free forums for a diversity of opinion.

But the political voice isn't all that will suffer. Ironically, so will a truly free market. It was the freedom and access of the Internet that allowed thousands of small entrepreneurs to launch new businesses that are now household names. Companies like Amazon and eBay. So a true free market also will be threatened if these greedy corporatists succeed.

And among our allies in this fight are Google and Yahoo, companies that have encouraged and benefitted from the popularity of the Web.

Hopefully, lawmakers will be able to determine which side truly wants to protect the Web and go with it. But I don't trust them to do it without hearing from their constituents about how important this is to them.

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