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Digital Disconnect: Robert McChesney on “How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy”

Digital Disconnect.(Image: The New Press)Longtime media-reform advocate Robert McChesney looks at how the future of American politics could be largely determined by who controls the Internet in his newest book. Digital Disconnect talks about the difference between the mythology of the Internet, the hope of the Internet, that it would empower people and make democracy triumphant, versus the reality, which is that large corporate monopolies and the government, working together, are taking away the promise of the Internet to suit their interests,” says McChesney, the co-founder of Free Press and the National Conference for Media Reform. His book begins with a simple claim: “The ways capitalism works and does not work determine the role the Internet might play in society.”


AMY GOODMAN: We are on the road in Denver, Colorado, at the first day of the National Conference for Media Reform, where close to 2,000 people have gathered, broadcasting from Denver Open Media. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in a moment we’ll be joined by Robert McChesney, co-founder of Free Press, the organizers of the National Conference for Media Reform. He is just out with a new book called Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy. The book begins with a simple claim, quote: “The ways capitalism works and does not work determine the role the Internet might play in society.”

Before Bob joins us, I want to play a comment from another media activist who also dedicated much of his life to the Internet and democracy: Aaron Swartz. Aaron committed suicide in January. At the time of his death, he was facing up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine if convicted for using computers at MIT to download millions of academic articles provided by the nonprofit research service JSTOR. He was 26 years old. Attorneys for the late Internet freedom activist have filed an ethics complaint over his federal prosecution. His death prompted an outpouring of frustration and anger over his prosecution. On Capitol Hill, Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren of California introduced a bill dubbed “Aaron’s Law” to modify the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by decriminalizing violations of “terms of service” agreements. This is Aaron Swartz speaking in 2010 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He spoke just about JSTOR.

AARON SWARTZ: I am going to give you one example of something not as big as saving Congress, but something important that you can do right here at your own school. It just requires you willing to get your shoes a little bit muddy. By virtue of being students at a major U.S. university, I assume that you have access to a wide variety of scholarly journals. Pretty much every major university in the United States pays these sort of licensing fees to organizations like JSTOR and Thomson and ISI to get access to scholarly journals that the rest of the world can’t read. And these licensing fees are substantial. And they’re so substantial that people who are studying in India, instead of studying in the United States, don’t have this kind of access. They’re locked out from all of these journals. They’re locked out from our entire scientific legacy. I mean, a lot of these journal articles, they go back to the Enlightenment. Every time someone has written down a scientific paper, it’s been scanned and digitized and put in these collections.

That is a legacy that has been brought to us by the history of people doing interesting work, the history of scientists. It’s a legacy that should belong to us as a commons, as a people, but instead it’s been locked up and put online by a handful of for-profit corporations who then try and get the maximum profit they can out of it. Now, there are people, good people, trying to change this with the open access movement. So, all journals, going forward, they’re encouraging them to publish their work as open access, so open on the Internet, available for download by everybody, available for free copying, and perhaps even modification with attribution and notice.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Aaron Swartz speaking in 2010. He committed suicide in January.

For more, we’re joined here at the Free Press’s National Conference for Media Reform by one of its founders, Bob McChesney, professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, author of a number of books on media and politics. His latest is called Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy . You can read the first chapter at our website,

Professor Bob, welcome back to Democracy Now!

ROBERT McCHESNEY: My pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Digital Disconnect, what do you mean?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think, when the Internet began, and this is—it seems like ancient history now—in the ’80s and ’90s, when we first people became aware of it, it was seen largely as a non-commercial oasis. It was a place where people could go and be equal and be empowered as citizens to take on concentrated economic and political power, to battle propaganda, and there was no advertising, there was no commercialism. That was off-limits. And there was no surveillance. People could do what they wanted and not be tracked. And that was the great democratic vision that started the Internet, that Aaron Swartz believe in.

And I think what we’ve seen in the last 20 years is that’s been turned on its head. And I think most people are oblivious to what’s taken place, because the thinking is, “Well, I can still do my thing. I can go to the Democracy Now! website. I can find other cool websites and hang out there. And as long as I can do my own thing and I can text my friends and have a Facebook page, life is good.” But it doesn’t really work that way. What’s been taking place—and I think it’s really crystallized in the last five years—is that on a number of different fronts, extraordinarily large, monopolistic corporations have emerged: AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, at the access level; Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, at the application and use level. And these firms have changed the nature of the Internet dramatically. And they’ve done it by becoming huge monopolies with immense power.

And what they’re able to do is collect information on us that’s absolutely unbelievable—we have no privacy anymore—and use that information to sell us to advertisers. And then, I think most strikingly, what I get at in the book is that they work closely with the government and the national security state and the military. They really walk hand in hand collecting this information, monitoring people, in ways that by all democratic theory are inimical to a free society.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Bob, one of the things that you raise in your book, that critics of the media, both from the left and the right, have had a blind spot for years of not doing enough of a political-economic analysis of the developments of the various forms of media, and especially the Internet. What are some of the main things that you raise, in terms of the political economy of the media, in your book?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, you have to look at the, first of all, access to the Internet. And the access to the Internet people get in this country is controlled by a cartel, basically, of AT&T, Verizon, with cellphones, and Comcast through cable line. And what we have in this country as a result of that is Americans pay far more for cellphones, they pay far more for broadband wired access, than any other comparable country in the world, and we get much worse service. It has nothing to do with the technology. It has nothing to do with, quote-unquote, “economics.” It has everything to do with corrupt policy making and the power of these firms. And that gives—that gives them the power to basically try to privatize the Internet as much as possible, make it their own, because they know people have no alternative. If you want a cellphone, you don’t have 14 choices; you’ve basically got one or two. And there’s—when you get that big, when you dominate a market as much as an AT&T or Verizon, you’re not really competing like 75 hot dog vendors compete. You have—see much more in common than you do in competition. And so that’s why it’s considered now a cartel.

But that’s just the beginning. Once you get through that bottleneck onto the Internet, what we’ve seen is that the Internet was promised to be this great engine of economic competition. It was going to spur economic growth, create all these new businesses, huge amounts of job. Remember the term “new economy” from the late ’90s? And instead what we’ve seen is the Internet is arguably the biggest generator of monopoly in history. I mean, at every place you look, from Google to Apple to Amazon to Facebook to Twitter, network economics lend themselves in such a way that you get one company that runs the table and no one else really can get a peep in. And these monopolies then generate massive profits, which they use as the basis to create empires—Google going out, Microsoft going out, taking their monopoly money and gobbling up all the other enterprises to build even larger digital empires. This is—

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And now we get the announcement of Facebook creating its own phone.

ROBERT McCHESNEY: And, you know, I think that that’s—in the book, I have a long discussion. The way to understand these huge empires—Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon—is they’re all like continents of the world. Imagine it’s the late 19th century. They’ve each got a continent—North America, South America, Asia, Africa. And their continent is their gusher monopoly basis, where they’re the monopoly, they get these huge profits. And then they use those profits in order to branch out and take attacks on the other continents to get a bigger chunk of it, because they really know everyone’s out to take over the world, but they’re the only players in the game. If you don’t have a continent, you’re not a player. And what’s happened on the Internet, too, is that with the rise of patents that these companies use to basically prevent newcomers from coming in, in addition to network economics, it’s become much more closed off than it was 10 or 15 years ago. A lot of the—Google has been the first to admit: “We could never start Google today; we’d have to go through so many lawsuits just to even get out of our office. It would be unthinkable.”

AMY GOODMAN: What does “net neutrality” mean today?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Net neutrality—in the theory of it or the practice, or both?


ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, in theory, the idea of net neutrality is it’s an acknowledgment that we have this cartel that controls access to the Internet. And because we have this cartel, there’s tremendous incentive for Comcast or AT&T and Verizon to want to basically privatize the Internet, say, “We control what you can get—gets on the Internet and what doesn’t, if you want to be on our network.” And then they can shake people down for money. It also has immense political power, unimaginable political power. And, you know, this is something that the media reform movement, Free Press, we’ve all organized on this for the last decade to prevent companies from using their monopoly power to be able to censor what gets through on the Internet, so we have an open network. Now, if we actually had a public service like a post office system, it wouldn’t be a debate you’d have, because there would be no incentive to censor off dissident voices. Everyone would have access, no questions asked. It’s a huge fight, and it’s a difficult fight, because there’s so much money on the other side.

The Obama administration’s net neutrality policy, which came through the FCC, was a sort of a Swiss cheese policy. It was a pretty good policy for the wireline cable companies. So you pretty much have an open Internet if you have a broadband in your home on a wire. But for the cellphone companies, basically, there’s a lot of holes in it, and it’s a private network there. They can get to do pretty much what they want. And the problem with that, of course, is you can’t really have half of the Internet being net neutrality and half of it not being. Eventually, the wireline people are going to say, “Why should we have to play by a different set of rules than the people we’re competing with doing the cellphones, AT&T and Verizon?” And they’re going to demand, and they will eventually, probably, get—unless we organize—an end of net neutrality there, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what is the fate of the content providers in this world where basically the people who control the pipes and the search engines and the aggregators are—have the main economic power? What happens to the journalists, the musicians, the artists and those who produce the actual content that people want to access over these systems?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Sheer unmitigated disaster. And we all know this. Newsrooms now look like plagues. And the—you know, the Internet is not solely responsible for the collapse of journalism. I think that media consolidation has led to a shrinking of newsrooms, relatively, over the last 25 years. It’s not a new thing. But what the Internet has done is it has greatly accelerated it and made it permanent. Right now we’re faced with a dark situation that there’s really no way to make—commercial interests can make money doing journalism, in any significant level. They might be able to do it for elites, business community, in the largest markets. But the notion of having a broad popular commercial journalism, as we understood for the last hundred years as sort of natural, that’s no longer in existence.

And what’s taken place online—and I write about this in the book—that’s, I think, most important—and I don’t think many people are aware of this—the nature of advertising is changing radically. We’re going through what’s—a shift from the traditional idea that an advertiser buys spots on a TV show or in a newspaper, and then the medium takes that money and bankrolls its content, so the journalism and the entertainment is paid for by the ads, and then that’s the deal. You know, it comes with strings attached, but that’s another side of the story. Online, increasingly advertising goes directly to whoever they want to reach, and none of the money goes to the website or the content, or only a smidgen goes to it. They know so much now—they know everything about us at Facebook and Google and all these companies—that if they say, “We want to hit a million women, 18 to 23, who might be thinking about buying a car in the next six months. We want them immediately,” they will find those women, whatever websites they go to. And so, there’s no money in that for the websites. That goes to the networks, run by people like Google and Microsoft and Yahoo! and AOL. They pocket most of that money, because they run these massive Internet empires.

What that means for journalism, again, is a disaster. It means, simply, if we’re going to have paid journalists, working journalists, competing in newsrooms with fact checkers and copy editors, who have got the institutional support to go up against powerful interests, it’s not happening online. There’s just nothing there to suggest it ever will happen. It’s going to be a public policy issue of the highest magnitude to solve that problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Bob McChesney, what about issues of privacy and surveillance?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, this relates to that, because the whole advertising models, they’re predicated on the idea that there’s no privacy. And, you know, I think that the more I’ve studied this, the more it becomes clear that anything you do, in a Google-related company or a Facebook-related company, any of these companies, is known by them. And there are literally scores of commercial interests that collect information on us that you don’t know about, huge amounts of information about each of us.

Now, generally speaking, the rule has been: They don’t know our names; they just know all our—they know who or what we are like; they can’t attach it to the name Amy Goodman or Juan González. But even that’s starting to possibly break down. We saw that in the Obama presidential campaign, which was extraordinarily sophisticated use of Internet data to track voters. And there, they had to know the names in order to actually go out and make the approach. And they’re sort of advancing the industry that way. But the result is, there’s almost no privacy online.

The whole economic system is built on it, which means that in Washington you’re going to have Google and Facebook and the whole industry lined up to make sure that that is not touched, because that’s the basis of a lot of their profitability. And it’s the thing that I think is the—you know, the Achilles heel of the whole system, because no American likes the idea that, unbeknownst to them, everything they do is the private property of a whole host of firms they have no idea who they are or what they’re doing with—and information that the government also has and the National Security Agency also has. And it’s just really—it’s inappropriate. It’s wrong. People don’t like it. And it’s one of the great debates we have to have, and we have to have soon, in this country.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And do you see any rays of hope in terms of what kinds of changes could be made at the policy level to put the brakes on some of these terrible trends, or also examples of media, local media, community media, that are actually making a difference and could be—could be brought up in scale to actually be a model to be followed around the country by others?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, I think that this is—absolutely, we can win these fights. On every issue I’ve mentioned, and in all the others that are in the book, all the polling shows that most—vast majority of Americans are on our side. They don’t like this cartel gouging us. They don’t like not having privacy. They don’t like these onerous copyright restrictions that have made the Internet in sort of corporate barbed wire everywhere you go. So, the people are with us. The problem we face is a corrupt political system that doesn’t deal with what people want, issues you’re well familiar with on this program. So that’s my optimism. I would be depressed if that weren’t the case. So, our job is simply to connect people’s interests and give it political power so we can actually win on these issues.

Yeah, and I think, going to your second point—and you talked about this earlier in the show with Craig—there is an immense amount of talent in this country. This country is bursting with talented people. But what’s not—there’s not an immense amount of resources to pay them. So I love the fact that there are lots of people doing great media, but I’d like them to be able to eat. I’d like them to be able to have a family. I’d like them to be able to have a roof over their head, and not have to have a day job and then do this in their spare time. You can’t have a free society if your journalism and culture is done by people, you know, at 11:00 at night after they put the kids to bed, clean up their house, before they go to bed to wake up to go to their job at an office. You’ve got to have a commitment with resources, so people can do the good stuff we need—the culture, the journalism—and they can be compensated for it.

AMY GOODMAN: So how do you do that?

ROBERT McCHESNEY: Well, in the book, I suggest that we come up with ways to greatly expand the resources that go to nonprofit, noncommercial media. I would give a citizen, what we call, news voucher, where any citizen can dedicate $200 to any nonprofit or noncommercial medium of their choice. It would be federal money, but the government would have no control over who gets it. So, people could give it to this show. If you have a million people give you $200, think you could do something with that, Amy?

But, I mean, it also means—or practically, let’s say in Denver there’s a community group that’s got—doing news journalism; they’re unhappy with the local coverage in the newspaper. What if you could get 2,000 people to give you their voucher in your neighborhood? Well, suddenly you’ve got $400,000. You can hire some people to cover your neighborhood really well. And do that every year, you can build up. And it would be very competitive, in the best sense. It wouldn’t be commercial competition, but it would be competition to do the best possible job to win the trust of people. And I think if that’s—that’s how we solve these sort of problems.

And to close on this point, when this country was started, it was well understood that if you did—if you just let the “market,” quote-unquote, run journalism and run communication, you would have a media for the rich. The people who had property would get the information they would need to run the country. But you would not have a democracy. If you wanted to have journalism for the whole population, for the entire citizenry, it would require massive postal subsidies, to make it possible for the abolitionist press, for example, to come into existence, or the suffragist press. All that took enlightened public policy making, and we need another strong dose of that today.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you very much, Bob McChesney, for joining us. Robert McChesney, professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, author of several books, many books on media and politics. His latest is called Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism Is Turning the Internet Against Democracy . Again, you can read the first chapter online at

When we come back from break, we are here in a particular place in Denver, Colorado, and so we’re going to speak to a reporter based here about a major exposé her online news site has done. We’ll be back in a minute.

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