Promises, Promises

This summer, millions of people stumbled upon The Information
Superhighway & You
, a new TV ‘program’ about developments
in digital media. Lured in by friendly host George Plimpton and
guest appearances by Eric Bogosian and Laurie Anderson, viewers
learned what the merging systems of telephone, video and computer
delivery will mean for ‘Joe-Average American.’ A series of
vignettes showed digital media helping people in medicine and in
human rights organizations, while an elderly woman in a wheelchair
revealed the personal joy of on-line friendship and romance and
speculated about the interactive media future. By the time an
AT&T spokesperson appeared, pushing the deregulation of the
telephone industry as the ticket to digital utopia, viewers may or
may not have realized they were watching an infomercial. In an age
when O.J. and Hugh Grant are considered more newsworthy than
telecommunication policy, curious people everywhere were no less
ripe for the pitch.

AT&T, Bell Atlantic, Time-Warner, and other
telecommunications giants seeking a slice of the new media pie are
working hard to present a warm and fuzzy vision of the information
superhighway as the road to public and personal good. What the
glitzy campaigns don’t mention is that the deregulatory policies
they spent millions lobbying for in Congress, and are now pitching
to consumers, are poised to serve corporate coffers at the expense
of diversity and public interest requirements. The
Telecommunications Competition and Deregulation Act of 1995, the
first major telecommunications bill since 1934, purports to break
up long-standing monopolies in the name of deregulated competition.
But by allowing the phone companies to buy cable companies,
newspapers, and TV stations in the same service area, the bill
opens the door to even more concentrated media monopolies in the
future.

The legislation, which Clinton still has the option of vetoing,
panders to telco giants with the resources to build the
superhighway infrastructure. Contrary to their PR campaigns, the
developers are planning a one way toll road as opposed to a two-way
public highway, with user interaction limited to moneymakers like
home shopping, entertainment on demand, and video games, writes
Joshua Shenk Wolf in the Washington Monthly (June 1995).
According to Wolf, ‘Common carriage,’ a term that dates back to the
railroad monopolies and means that companies must serve everyone
for the same price, is about to become a thing of the past. ‘The
metamorphosed phone/cable/computer companies of the future could
become one-stop infoshops,’ warns Pat Aufderheide in her regular
In These Times (June 12, 1995) media column. ‘They could
stomp any remaining little guys, and make sure no new, diverse
sources of information get big enough to bother with.

Original to Utne Reader Online, July
1995.

Joshua Wolf Shenk, ‘The Robber Barons of the Information
Highway,’ WASHINGTON MONTHLY (June 1995). Subscriptions: $39.50/yr.
(10 issues) available from Box 587, Mt. Morris, IL 61054.

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