It's Your Internet. . . Don't Give it Away

September, 1996

It was an "interesting" summer for the computer industry.

Microsoft released a dictionary with its word processing program that offered the words "savage" and "cannibal" as suitable synonyms for blacks and native Americans.

America Online debuted its English-only policy by deleting dozens of Spanish and Portuguese entries from its online soccer discussion group.

Now, both companies, along with a host of others large and small, have announced they would like to become the online equivalent of your local community newspaper.

Of course, Microsoft and America Online have apologized for their mistakes, attributing them to careless underlings, not corporate policy. But these "gaffes" are just the tip of the iceberg. The conscious policies of these companies are every bit as appalling.

America Online was recently found to have deliberately overcharged its millions of subscribers by illicitly adding time to their usage charges. A court has ordered them to make restitution.

Microsoft, while it so far has managed to avoid antitrust prosecution, has made its billions at the expense of the progress of personal computing, essentially ramming inferior products down the throats of users by virtue of its monopolistic control of the operating systems market. (By the way, this is not a terribly original opinion. You'll hear the same from personal computer pioneer Steve Jobs and the CEO of Sun Microsystems Scott McNealy. )

Microsoft and America Online are not the only "carpetbaggers" who've targeted the neighborhoods with dubious Internet offers. A swarm of fast buck artists have descended on small businesses throughout the city, exploiting the hype and confusion surrounding the Internet by charging ridiculously inflated rates for Internet marketing services.

For a person like me, who was involved in the movement to popularize the Internet long before it became a media darling, all this is terribly ironic.

The reason we promoted Internet use in the first place was to offer communities, small businesses, and individuals a way around the spreadsheet jockeys and corporate hacks who have succeeded in turning most other media - TV, radio, magazines, newspapers - into mindless big business-sponsored pabulum. Now, not surprisingly, the same companies that have done such a poor job of providing news, education, and information via traditional channels want to include the Internet into their “vision of the future.”

Let me offer an alternate vision.

First, some basic facts about putting news and info about yourself and your organization on the Internet:

Despite what the flock of newly-minted Internet consultants would have you believe, Internet publishing is cheap and easy. Obviously, an enormous site with elaborate graphics and complex custom programming is an expensive proposition, but producing and maintaining two or three simple Web pages should cost more than desktop publishing the same amount of material and photocopying a few hundred pages per month. In other words, if you can afford to print and distribute flyers, you can afford to be on the Web.

Why bother to put material on the Internet's World Wide Web? Several practical reasons:

1) An ever-growing number of people use the Web to get information. If material about you and your organization is not on the Web, you are invisible to them. As it becomes easier and cheaper to use the Web (this fall you'll be able to access the Web through your TV without the expense of a personal computer), the number of users will expand exponentially.

2) The Web is open for business seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Prospects and customers may misplace your printed material, but your Internet info is always available online.

3) The Web allows you to publish in color and distribute an essentially unlimited number of pages for a fraction of the cost of print publishing. And, if you need to correct an error or update your information, you can do it in minutes without occurring the enormous costs of re-printing and re-distributing.

The Web is not perfect and it doesn't solve all problems, but it can be a marvelous addition to our media world. For the first time in history it is now realistic and affordable for neighborhoods and communities to establish their own electronic voices. The other electronic media, television and radio, promote a distorted view of the world. They glorify distant celebrities, big business, and fantasy worlds and ignore small businesses, community life, and the everyday struggles and triumphs of real people.

The quality of what's on the Internet is up for grabs. It can easily be turned into another TV wasteland. Or it can become a community resource, a defensive weapon that makes neighborhoods, families, and individuals stronger in the face of the ongoing "corporatization" of the world.

Having a communications channel that is independent of big business and gives uncensored voice to communities is no trivial matter. In the deification of the corporate world that has taken place over the last decade and a half, individual citizens seem to have lost sight of a basic fact of life: corporations, by definition, care nothing about the environment, civil rights, social stability, or the dignity of human life.

Corporations are legally structured to give the people who own and operate them only one obligation: make maximum profits for shareholders. If a neighborhood or an ecological system or the reproductive ability of a generation of young women (Dalkon shield) is destroyed in the process, no CEO will lose his job - or presumably sleep - over it. They just pay the fines and court judgments - if any - and continue taking care of business. According to the legal definition of a corporation, they have no obligation, ethical or moral, to anyone or anything beyond making money.

Before corporations like Microsoft, America Online, and others are allowed to take root in your neighborhood with their online local news services, community-minded people should become knowledgeable about their options and decide how they want to use the Internet to advance community interests. The sooner they do this, the better.

Local news and online services can and should be provided by people who live in and have a commitment to their communities, not by the employees of a distant "media empires." Communities that abdicate this important means to organize and assert themselves do so at their own peril. Keep in mind, the friendly corporations that are now so eager to "serve" you with local online information are chartered for one purpose and one purpose only: to extract profits. The interests of your community are not even a blip on their radar screens.

In other words, it's your Internet - for now - but if you don't use it, you can lose it to entities that, experience shows, will act in their self interest even if it injures yours.

Ken McCarthy

Ken McCarthy is president of E-Media, E-Media was one of the world's first Internet consulting firms. In 1994, it sponsored the first conference devoted exclusively to commercial uses of the World Wide Web.


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