Alternate Approaches

The Mess on Our ‘Information Superhighway’

Why should moving data around be any different from moving people? No private party ought to be getting rich off a basic public trust.

By Sam Pizzigati

No one became a billionaire off building and operating America's Interstate highways. But every day, to access the Internet, we're making today's billionaires richer.

No one became a billionaire off building and operating America’s Interstate highways. But every day, to access the Internet, we’re making today’s billionaires richer.

Back in the early 1990s, the infancy of the Internet Age, our hippest policy wonks orated endlessly about the emerging “information superhighway.”

But that mouthful of a moniker would soon fall out of fashion. Anyone today who talks “information superhighway” comes across as hopelessly uncool. The irony here? If we still talked about the Internet as a “superhighway,” maybe we wouldn’t find ourselves in the online mess that now envelops us.

Americans currently pay much more for Internet than just about everybody else in the developed world. Other countries have established fast, cheap Internet access as a given of modern life. In the United States, we surf the Net at Model-T speeds — and tens of millions of Americans still have no broadband access at all.

This pitiful situation may soon get worse. Two corporate giants that share significant responsibility for our current digital state of affairs, Comcast and Time Warner, are now seeking regulatory approval for a $45 billion merger that would leave Comcast controlling the bulk of the nation’s broadband access.

In 19 of the nation’s 20 largest metro areas, the “only choice for a high-capacity wired connection will be Comcast,” points out Susan Crawford, the author of last year’s widely acclaimed Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age.

Our Interstate road network demonstrates the wonders we can realize once we start thinking about basic infrastructure as a public good.

So how would thinking “superhighway” help us out of this mess? America’s only actual “superhighway” — our Interstate road network — demonstrates quite neatly the wonders we can realize once we start thinking about basic infrastructure as a public good, not a source of grand private fortune.

Historians give former President Dwight Eisenhower most of the credit for America’s current Interstate system. In 1919, as a young military officer, Ike’s first drive across the United States took 62 days. In 1956, as the nation’s chief executive, he would sign the legislation that created the Interstate network — and eventually cut the time of a transcontinental drive to just five days.

Every citizen, Eisenhower believed, had a “vital interest” in a “safe and adequate highway system.” The federal government, under Ike, would take that interest seriously. The legislation he signed in 1956 would authorize the nation’s largest public works project ever, a $25-billion, 10-year highway construction effort.

Eisenhower’s entire new Interstate road network would operate under public control. No motorists had to pay a private entity anything to gain access. The ebb and flow of Ike’s Interstate traffic would create no grand private fortunes.

Public control simply seemed the only way to go for Americans in the middle of the 20th century — and not just for highways. These years would see a vast expansion of public infrastructure, for everything from recreation to education. State and national parks would soon come to dot the American landscape. A wide array of new public colleges and universities opened their doors.

Public control simply seemed the only way to go for Americans in the middle of the 20th century — and not just for highways.

What explains this golden age of publicly financed and managed infrastructure? Economic equality certainly played a prime role. By the 1950s, the nation’s original plutocracy had faded away. A mass middle class, the world’s first ever, had jumped out onto the nation’s political center stage.

Most Americans in this new more equal America faced similar problems. Public solutions, in this political environment, just seemed common sense.

Build the Interstate with public tax dollars? Operate the Interstate under public control? Of course. Americans of the mid 20th century could see no alternative to public control over public goods.

An alternative, we know today in our much more unequal America, does exist: Private interests could control our public goods. We could have decided a half-century ago to lease out the Interstate’s management to private companies.

If we had organized the Interstate along these lines, anyone wanting to ride the system would have been paying tribute, all these years, to private corporations. And the execs in those corporations would have become fabulously rich, wealthy enough to corrupt our political system and keep their monopoly power secure.

We’ve let private corporations determine who can access our data superhighway.

This scenario should all sound a bit familiar. In contemporary America, we’ve let private corporations determine who can access our data superhighway. That control has generated grand fortunes — and formidable political power.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts, we learned in 2013, averaged $29 million in take-home the previous three years. He has become both a billionaire and a major political player. Roberts plays golf with the President of the United States. His top lobbyist used to sit on the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that has to decide whether to approve the Comcast merger with Time Warner.

The top official in the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division will also have a say on the merger. The current Justice Department antitrust chief helped grease the skids, as a corporate attorney, for Comcast’s 2011 takeover of the NBC Universal media conglomerate.

Brian Roberts and his corporate counterparts elsewhere in the data-moving industry have essentially created a giant wealth extraction machine, sucking on average over $150 a month per household for TV, phone, and Internet, a bundle that costs a French household in Paris much less than one-third that price.

Sign-up for Too MuchThe first step toward turning this situation around? Stop the Comcast and Time Warner merger. The more fundamental task: Give our private corporate Internet access giants some public competition.

Some municipalities are already moving to set up their own fiber networks for Internet access. Comcast and other telecom heavy hitters, working with the plutocrat-friendly American Legislative Exchange Council, are pushing states to ban localities from taking this public-spirited action. Nineteen so far have.

The battle is only beginning.

Labor journalist Sam Pizzigati, an Institute for Policy Studies associate fellow, writes widely about inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970.

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One comment for “The Mess on Our ‘Information Superhighway’”

  1. That was a truly good read. I’m unhappy with the way the Left here in Canada isn’t talking about using government to force competition. I don’t know what that’s all about. Mind you, I can’t follow everything, 24/7, so maybe I’m being too hard on our Left. I’ll have to pop into Open Media and have a look. Maybe I’ll email someone there.

    I have had this site in my blogroll for some time. I’ve collected/ bookmarked a huge pile of progressive websites over time, and added some to my own blog’s blogroll. For that reason, I’m hardly able to know all that those sites are doing. I certainly don’t come here often enough.

    If Americans are at the top of countries whose citizenry are being screwed by ‘capitalists’, then Canada must be close enough to feel it’s body warmth.

    I’m plowing through John Ralston Saul’s book, “The Collapse Of Globalism And The Reinvention Of The World,” and in it he talks about today’s type of capitalist. While I completely disagree with Saul on a few things (The US is a friend of Bosnia Herzogovina?! and globalism is dead?!!!), I always find him to be thought-provoking.

    Managerial, or technocratic, capitalists eschew hard or aggressive thinking for easy scheming and force. And they certainly have no use for principles, let alone compassion.

    “The modern obsession with size is managerial, not capitalistic. Technocrats, given a choice, will seek power through structure and the extension of structure rather than through the direct development or sale of goods. For a manager, success is measured by structural size and confirmed by bonuses.

    “Their biggest problem as the structures grow larger is slowness, lack of creativity, risk aversion, stagnation at the top. The easiest way to energize such a structure is to buy another structure. This is managerial shock treatment. Bang two organizations together.

    “The result has been a new world of mergers and acquisitions in which nothing is actually done, but large pieces are moved around, resulting in the effective printing of new sorts of money to finance it all…

    “One fascinating aspect of gigantism is the marriage between the most superficial sort of financiers – looking for the ‘targets’ and ‘megadeals’ and ‘payoff bonanzas’ and ‘shooting for a big score’ – and the most serious of business managers, who don’t even like selling, because it is beneath them as working professionals. In their world, size replaces risk and innovation. What links the speculators and the managers is the shared assumption that size replaces the need to think.” (pages 80 & 81)

    Posted by Arby | February 26, 2014, 7:53 pm

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