McChesney writes that the dangers and possibilities of the internet need to be seen in the context of capitalist relations, finds Peter Stauber

Robert W. McChesney, Digital Disconnect (New Press 2013), 299pp.

There was a time, back in the early 1990s, when things looked very promising. The internet, then in its infancy, would lead to a flattening of hierarchies, information would be readily available to everybody, censorship would become impossible, and educational resources would be accessible to the poor as well as the rich. There would be a genuine democracy. That, at least, was what people were hoping for. What has happened to all that? How did we end up with an internet that is dominated by a handful of mega-corporations like Apple, Google and Facebook?

Robert W. McChesney does a great job at answering this question, at explaining how the ‘tremendous promise of the digital revolution has been compromised by capitalist appropriation and development of the Internet’ (p.97). He focuses almost exclusively on the development in the United States, but the global nature of the industry makes his conclusions applicable to other countries.

McChesney does not, however, repeat the argument of internet sceptics like Evgeny Mozorov, who, in his 2011 book The Net Delusion, points out that digital communication is prone to being manipulated and regulated by powerful people. Instead, McChesney argues that both those celebrating the internet’s democratic potential (who are still the most vocal internet observers) and those who are more critical, display an ‘ignorance about really existing capitalism and an under appreciation of how capitalism dominates social life’ (p.13). In other words, they fail to recognise the way in which capitalism defines not only our economies, politics and society, but also our digital communications.

The origins of the internet are not discussed in great detail. The author instead focuses on the corporate takeover during the 1990s, which started when the National Science Foundation Network (NSFN), the basis of the internet, was turned over to the private sector. Public opposition to this was largely absent because people did not know what was going on (p.104). The industries that felt most threatened by the internet were the telephone and cable television companies, as the new medium would soon allow everybody all sorts of communication at no cost. Consequently, they used their political and commercial power to persuade policymakers in Washington to give them monopoly licenses to run the internet and to deregulate the market in order to ‘remove or severely lessen the idea of government action in the public interest’ (p.107).

The same drive towards monopolisation could be observed in the broader media system. From the 1970s until the 1990s, the US media, just like its UK counterpart, had become dominated by a handful of giant conglomerates: Time Warner, News Corporation, Disney and a few others. The internet appeared to threaten this oligopoly for three reasons: it made it much easier for new players to enter the media market, it was difficult to make customers pay for content online, and digital advertising did not seem profitable (pp.122-3). The solution was simple: the media corporations bought the competition and then did everything they could to make ‘the system as closed and proprietary as possible, encouraging corporate and state surreptitious monitoring of Internet users and opening the floodgates of commercialism’ (p.124). One important way of doing this is to extend the scope and length of copyright, which we witnessed in attempts to stop piracy through the SOPA and ACTA bills. Another strategy was to develop proprietary systems to access media content, like Apple iTunes, Netflix and legal streaming services.

This has led to a situation where the internet, once hailed as a champion of increased consumer power, has become ‘one of the greatest generators of monopoly in economic history’ (p.130). Google, for example, controls around 70% of the search-engine market, while 90% of the profits in the smartphone space are going to Apple and Samsung.

A similar thing is true for digital journalism. As commercial journalism is collapsing rapidly, although the situation in the United States seems to be more dramatic than in the UK, the industry is desperately trying to look for ways to make money out of online journalism. With losses in print ad-revenue proving difficult to make up online, making people pay for their news is an obvious solution. However, quite apart from the fact that this seems to work only for prominent and specialised newspapers like the Financial Times,McChesney points out that this would do away with the core function of journalism, which is to ‘insulate the news from commercialism’ and to produce the ‘necessary information for citizens to understand and participate effectively in their societies’ (p.187). This role as a democratic and public service is lost if a pay wall is erected, which accelerates the commercialization of journalism. ‘The cure may be worse than the disease’, McChesney writes.

What does seem to work, on the other hand, is scale. The online news media are dominated by a handful of websites which have the requisite resources and recognition and therefore are able to reach enough readers to make advertising profitable. In the future, this tendency seems likely to become more pronounced. ‘The grand irony of the Internet is that what was once regarded as an agent of diversity, choice, and competition has become an engine of monopoly. As to journalism, it is unclear if anyone can make a go of it commercially, beyond material aimed at the wealthy and the business community’ (p.191).

A solution that he proposes is the very unfashionable idea of journalism subsidies. In the mid-nineteenth century, when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about the large number of newspapers in the US and concluded ‘that the number of newspapers was in direct proportion to how egalitarian and democratic the society was’, subsidies were the order of the day. ‘The robust press had little to do with free markets and everything to do with subsidies that dramatically lowered the costs of publishing,’ writes McChesney (p.205). This is still true today. The most egalitarian societies are the ones that directly subsidise their press. Newspaper subsidies tend to help the smaller and more dissident newspapers, without ideological bias, over the large commercial papers.

The author has a lot more to say, of course, including an interesting section on advertising. Who would have thought, for example, that when the internet emerged ‘the notion that it would be a distinctly non-commercial space was uncontroversial and widely embraced’ (p.146)? Or who would have foreseen the collusion between the media giants and the security services, a problem that is more topical than ever, thanks to Edward Snowden. As always, McChesney produces a wealth of figures to support his case, and his arguments for a more democratic internet should be heeded by anyone interested in the future of journalism.

Peter Stauber

Peter Stäuber is a freelance journalist and translator. He writes for English and German language publications and is a member of the NUJ.