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Communication is Political

By Howard Rheingold

We hear about the five hundred channels of the same old stuff, and watch reports of new point-click-and-buy services, and read the stories of porno on the Internet, but where are the discussions of how the new ways of communicating will affect our freedom?

If too few citizens speak up for liberty and democracy while the Congress and the telecommunications giants divide among them the fat new marketplace they call the "information superhighway," then we might discover that liberty and democracy will have no place in the new regime. And if the news media go for the flashy, trashy, stories and neglect the political meaning of the new technology, citizens and elected representatives will make important decisions in dangerous ignorance.

Communications technologies are political weapons. Liberty and democracy, the fundamental freedoms patriots die for, are built upon open information and debate. Freedom of assembly, of speech, of the press are all political freedoms that concern the rights of citizens to communicate with one another. Right now, those rights are in danger and most citizens don't even know it.

With Congress censoring the Internet under the guise of "decency," and the FBI extending its power to snoop into citizens' communications, it is clear that cynical control-freaks are taking advantage of our ignorance about the real power plays going on. Porno on the Net is a sideshow. The main event, taking place far from the spotlight, is about who will control and profit from the new industry that network communication technology makes possible.

Democracy is kept alive by informed citizens who communicate with each other about the issues that concern them. The concentration of power over influential communications that came with broadcast (few to many) media has drained real dialogue among citizens from national discourse. When any desktop in the world can become an electronic printing press, town hall, audio-video broadcaster, old power structures based on control by a few people over broadcast media that influence many people are going to change radically.

Communications media are political tools because they have the power to influence people's beliefs and perceptions. New technologies make new communications media possible, from the alphabet to the printing press to the computer network, and new media make possible new power structures. If such a power shift is now underway, what is the true democratizing potential of many-to-many media, and what are the threats to individual liberty posed by the same media or by the way the media may be used or controlled?

Could a future telecommunications company gain control of the conduit that brings information to and from individuals, or over the box in their home that enables them to connect with the Net, or the software they use to navigate, and through that control, gain control over what others may use that conduit to do? Will the telecommunications marketplace that emerges from the construction of the information superhighway be a competitive, or monopolistic?

Will "decency" laws define the limits of how citizens will be allowed to communicate? Are we really promoting democratic discourse when we hand the keys of our private transactions and communications over to law enforcement authorities, as a nation, without due process? If the issues at stake in the rush to regulate the Net are as important as their sponsors claim, what is all the hurry about making laws? Perhaps more of the population ought to have a chance to hear, understand, and discuss what new technologies have in store for our private lives before our elected representatives make bad laws.

And perhaps our news media ought to wake up and start reporting on the real stories about threats to democracy, instead of dwelling exclusively on lurid distractions like porno.

Tomorrow |