Democracy as a “Big Stick”

If you seek to strike fear into the hearts and minds of American citizens, simply mention that something is a threat to American democracy, regardless of whether such a comment makes any realistic sense.

The Seattle Times today features an editorial on “Ill effects of a gated cyber world“. In it, there are two passages that really got my attention, both mentioning the seeming downfall of democracy should corporate providers be allowed to put in place paid mechanisms for providing faster downloads:

If computer-network providers are allowed to hijack the Internet, the damage will go much deeper than the consumers’ wallets. Democracy will be at risk with the inevitable limiting of voices if Internet neutrality is not ensured.

AT&T and other network providers such as Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner are pushing Congress to strike any language from the new telecom bill — the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 — that would eliminate the ability to charge extra for the speedy service available to all currently on those networks. Here is what will happen if the network companies prevail: Internet customers would pay additional fees to have Web sites and other services that use the network, download nearly instantaneously, while Web sites for customers who do not pay extra would download slower.

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The biggest loser in a gated cyber world would be American democracy. Democracy is already suffering from the effects of consolidation, especially in the media where only a handful of companies either own outright or own interests in films, newspapers, magazines, radio, television, book publishing, and any other media channel that can be devoured.

The author’s point here is very valid – that adding a fee to ensure that a user always gets faster download speeds than everyone else is problematic and runs counter to how the Internet operates today, but to call it a threat to American democracy is laughable. The author forgets that, while U.S. corporations certainly do hold a high stake in the Internet, that the Internet is a global force, not one confined merely to U.S. borders. In fact, it has no borders – the Internet is an ephemeral cloud which users all over the world utilize to find information and connect to other people. To call anything regarding the Internet, regardless of whether it has to do with the American corporations that control those resources, a “threat to American democracy” is incredibly myopic and hegemonic. The Internet simply does not work that way. To claim otherwise fails to consider the big picture.