The Internet and the Public Interest
by Gilles d'Aymery

April 18, 1998

Ever since the day in 1992 when the Clinton Administration started promoting the Internet as the next "Miracle Gro" for commerce, information, education, democracy, and the overall betterment of humanity, the traffic (bandwidth) has grown exponentially -- it now doubles every 100 days. With absolute faith in the power of the free market the Clinton Administration envisioned a new world where access to the Net would become universal, offering unlimited possibilities for growth and creativity, in the name of the public interest. As is often the case, the law of unintended consequences has brought alarming results.

To reach this quasi-utopian future the notion of profit was introduced and is rapidly replacing, if it has not already replaced, the initial notion upon which the Net had been founded, that is, the free interchange of information for the progress of knowledge.

Obviously one will be prompt to interject that the initial notion was neither free nor universal. It was government funded and directed toward a relatively small elite of scientists and other technologically-savvy professionals. No one can deny this. And no one can deny that the Internet, thanks in large part to the invention of the World Wide Web, has experienced an extraordinary growth in rich content with the arrival of tens of millions of new users with diverse backgrounds and interests. But neither can it be denied that the public interest is now funded by private interests. Money was always present. It is its provenance that has changed.

As a society, through our elected representatives, we decided to transfer the public interest into private hands. This transfer should not particularly surprise anyone. After all, it is a logical step, a step in the right direction, for whoever believes in the supremacy of the private sector. And this is a majority belief -- some would call it an ideology -- in our country nowadays. Indeed, listing what is not privatized is a shorter task than reciting the litany of the sectors of our society that are in private hands. If we are satisfied with Nike's sponsorship of our schools' sport teams, why should we object to IBM, 3COM, or Cisco financing the wiring of our schools or the development of a new, hundred times faster Internet? At least there is coherence in the thinking process. Money talks.

In 1995, when America Online (AOL), the Online Service Provider, was a distant third behind CompuServe and Prodigy it was charging its subscribers $4.95 a month for 5 hours on line. It had less than 1 million subscribers. Eventually, it started charging $9.95 for 10 hours a month. It passed the 3 million subscribers mark. Later, it offered unlimited time for $19.95 a month. Today, with over 10 million subscribers it has increased its subscription rate to $24.95 a month and has merged with CompuServe. Netcom, the Internet Service Provider, used to charge $19.95 for forty hours a month. Then it offered unlimited time for the same dollar amount. Today, Netcom charges $25 for new accounts and offers myriad plans at higher rates. ATT, when it joined the bandwagon, priced its ISP services at $19.95 for unlimited time. Today, it limits its base rate to 150 hours a month and charges 95 cents an hour for each additional hour. Is this the best way to move toward universality?

We used to have modems with speeds of 300, 1200, 2400 bauds per minute. In 1985 my very first 2400 bds/m modem cost almost $500. We've gone through 9600, 14400, 28800, 33400 and now, one can buy a 56 k modem for less than $100. Prices of hardware and software have plummeted while the frequency of required upgrades has skyrocketed. One would expect faster access to the Internet and a smoother and more enjoyable experience when surfing the Web. Instead, the congestion is such that one gets disconnected time and again and needs all the patience in the world to access sites filled with blinking graphics and advertising banners. So, the industry is fast at work developing new technologies to loosen the bandwidth bottleneck. ISDN lines, DSL, cable, fiber optics, all sort of new technologies are mushrooming. Yet, the Net is almost bogged down to its knees on a daily basis and we are being constantly inundated by more advertising, more trash mail, and more spam. The dog is biting its tail.

About 41 per cent of U.S. households own a home computer but when looking at Web usage according to annual income, about 20 per cent of people with an annual income over $40,000 have used the Web in the previous week. Only about 5 per cent of those with an annual income under $40,000 did. The gap between the haves and the have-nots is widening further. The gap between poor and wealthy school districts is even wider with many schools having no access whatsoever to the Net or, when they do, with only obsolete equipment and slow modems. Add to this the gap between poor and rich countries and an alarming situation starts emerging. Class has appeared on the Net. Is this the type of growth the Clinton Administration had in mind?

As said, the Internet has moved far away from its initial purpose, the free interchange of information for the progress of knowledge. Establishments of higher education are so acutely aware of this trend that the Internet 2 Project has become a new priority. It will only exacerbate the contradictions of our present policies and create a two-tier Internet access system. Slow access at higher-than-present costs with mostly congested commercial contents, edutainment and "trashy" sites for the many, and fast, subsidized access with quality information for the happy few.

If you consider that these trends are profoundly detrimental to the public interest, please visit the Web site of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. CPSR has started a campaign, "One Planet, One Net" that addresses those issues in a thoughtful way. In addition, their site provides a wealth of relevant information on this subject.

Note for the readers that have been with us since early on:

In May 1996, when Swans was launched, some of you may remember what we had written in our page "About Swans." Since then we have considerably shortened the content of that page but it may be worth looking at what we were saying then, just about two years ago:

By 1992, when talk of a marvelous new world called the Information Super Highway surfaced, the writing of commercialization was all over the wall of the Internet. 1995 was its watershed year. The Government, for all practical purposes, ceased to finance the Internet, and with the fast development of the World Wide Web, the Net became a money-making enterprise. Millions of new Netters joined this much heralded new world -- the latest "last frontier" of human endeavor; Internet Service Providers and on-line services started the exponential growth that has yet to abate; IPOs made a few Net Nerds rich overnight, and Business entered the fray big-time.

The marketplace of ideas has quickly turned to green and is full of optimism for the next century. And so, traveling from the Information Super Highway to the Consumer Super Payway the future looks very much like the past!

Beside the dollar sign, the content of the Internet has also changed. Originally driven by defense concerns, the Net eventually became an instrument for Universities where students and researchers could exchange information and ideas. Today, in 1996, the most visited Web sites are sexually explicit! The invasion of mainstream baloney and malarkey is threatening the initial intent of this extraordinary tool which allows us to share knowledge beyond borders and nationalities. Thoughtful sites and people are increasingly struggling under the onslaught of moronity, vulgarity, and boredom. It is a sad reality.

The idea of Swans was born in this environment as a response to that reality. How? By taking advantage of the instrument, the Internet, and its tool, the Web, to create a different kind of site, where lay people of diverse backgrounds, ideas, and opinions could express themselves without being shut out by the mainstream media, and to provide readers with the opportunity to share thought-provoking columns for a few minutes of their life, every day, without being constantly assaulted by ads and conventional "wisdom."

Well, we are not publishing on a daily basis anymore for lack of contributors, but at least our site remains free from the advertising onslaught and, we hope, keeps offering thought-provoking columns...

We intend to keep it that way, even if it means that, if the present trend of massive commercialization continues, we will soon become some sort of dinosauric anachronism!

Published April 18, 1998
[Copyright]-[Archives]-[Main Page]