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Monday, January 17, 2000 | Print this story

AOL-Time Warner Merger Could Steer Internet Down Wrong Road

By GARY CHAPMAN


     The blockbuster news of a pending merger between America Online and Time Warner was, in retrospect, not all that surprising. But the merger would not only produce a corporate powerhouse of spectacular size and scope, it almost certainly would be a turning point for the character of the Internet--and not for the better.
     There are two competing visions for the Internet now, what might be called the "public interest" vision and the "info-tainment" vision. The AOL-Time Warner deal would mark a huge leap for the latter and possibly a fatal blow to the former.
     America Online is not really the Internet, although most of its 22 million subscribers can't tell the difference and probably wouldn't care anyway.
     AOL is the online version of "The Truman Show," the Jim Carrey movie about a character whose entire life is, unknown to him, a 24-hour television show staged on an immense fake set. Like the town in the movie, AOL is managed, cultivated, screened and constantly under surveillance. It's also saturated with ads, product placements and what last week's news release from AOL called, with Orwellian overtones, "branded content," or info-tainment provided by familiar corporate sources.
     AOL is essentially a virtual shopping mall with e-mail and Web access thrown in. Like a mall, AOL controls who gets to display their goods, who can shop there and how, where the advertising goes and what it looks like, etc. The AOL system uses proprietary technologies, controls the dial-up connections of its subscribers and amasses huge databases of records on what users do while they're inside the controlled AOL environment.

* * *
     The Internet, on the other hand, is completely uncontrolled, or at least radically decentralized. It uses nonproprietary and open standards for both connectivity and networking, and the experience of using the Internet is completely shaped by the individual user. The Internet is a public space, more like a big, bustling and diverse city than a designed, commercialized and strictly managed private shopping mall. No one owns the Internet, no one controls it, and this is its dramatic and revolutionary promise--it's a communications medium unlike any other.
     The public interest vision of the Internet starts with the premise that the Internet should not be controlled or dominated by anyone or any institution. That leads to the corollary premise that the Internet should be built on nonproprietary standards that can be used by any software developer or Internet user. That, in turn, means that users should be able to choose how they get on the Internet, what computers and software they will use, and what their Internet experience will look and feel like. Internet servers, the computers that "serve up" Web pages, e-mail and other data, should not favor certain users over others nor discriminate against specific users.
     In an ideal world, the entire planet would be wired with a vast web of interconnected telecommunications networks that would be regarded the same way we now regard streets and highways--as free and open, nondiscriminatory, policed only for safety, and a basic component of freedom and civil rights. The Internet should be, as early Internet pioneer Bob Taylor said in this column last year, "a right and not a privilege."
     Within such a model, there would be intense competition in services, the way there is between car companies or between UPS and Federal Express. But the basic purpose of the Internet, communication, would be viewed as an essential right, one that should be provided to every citizen as part of a civilized life.
     But the info-tainment vision of the Internet is quite different. The moguls of AOL, Time Warner, AT&T, Microsoft and other companies view the Internet as an advanced form of cable TV--as a consumer service used primarily to sell products and secondarily to entertain or inform. It's not a right, it's just a business like any other. And to dominate this business you need to own it all--the wires, the technology, the content, the creative talent, everything.
     AOL and Time Warner are not the only evangelists of this proprietary, info-tainment model of the information age. Microsoft has done many things that make some Web sites work better for Windows users. Two weeks ago, Apple Computer announced some new Internet services that will only work for Macintosh users who have the latest version of the company's software. AT&T has vigorously pursued a strategy of locking its cable modem customers into its preferred Internet service provider, its partner Excite@Home.
     AOL-Time Warner, and the other big vertical mergers that are expected to follow, would not control the Internet--that's impossible and also unnecessary for profitability.
* * *
     But they will likely come to dominate the public's impression of what online services look like, what they're for and how they're financed and developed. Instead of thinking of the Internet as a universal, public infrastructure used for democratic dialogue, diversity and building society, we'll tend to think of it as a consumer service like cable TV, complete with updated, digital analogues of MTV, home shopping, Jerry Springer, infomercials, product tie-ins, cooking channels and all the rest. Citizenship will once again be overwhelmed and eclipsed by consumerism.
     In a decade, what will the Internet be for young people? A display of rich human diversity, free expression and admirable cultural achievement, or another boring and all-too-familiar mall? We veered off in the wrong direction last week.
     Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. He can be reached at gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.

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