Volume 2 Issue 1 Spring 2018

Between Cambridge and Palo Alto

Interview by
Catalyst

An Interview with Robert McChesney.


C

How has the Cambridge Analytica scandal been described in the media? And what do you think of how it’s being framed?

RM

The coverage itself has not been bad, what there’s been of it. But I think the really striking thing about that story is that the crucial issues the story raised have fallen to the bottom of the ocean. That’s the interesting question. Why does this story, which ought to be triggering the same sort of public debate that the Watergate scandal triggered about money in politics, and the defeat in the Vietnam War triggered about the role of the CIA in American life in the 1970s, fall out of view? Why are we getting nothing like that sort of response to a scandal that’s, I think, of equal, or similar, magnitude?

C

Clearly what it’s pointing to is the extremely close connection between commercial media, politics, and our everyday lives.

RM

Absolutely. It demonstrates how deeply entrenched the largest internet companies and their surveillance model is with the profit system. They’re just in the bone marrow of modern capitalism — of our modern political economy. To go after that is basically going after the whole system, in a way. It would require that sort of organizing campaign.

Or to put it in terms of media analysis: no significant economic interests wish to open up critical public examination of the surveillance model of capitalism, so that means none of our political establishment —Republicans or Democrats — has any incentive to go there. Those few journalists who remain have little to work with from the official sources they rely upon, so the matter dies. It is no longer “news.”

The Cambridge Analytica story initially got a significant amount of coverage from our “liberal news media,” but then they pretty much dropped it, for these reasons. In addition, the story did not conform to the Russia obsession, especially at MSNBC. When they realized that this was something that was being done by a traditional capitalist concern, bankrolled by a traditional American right-wing, hedge-fund, billionaire named Robert Mercer, it became a non-story. It ceased to matter, even though Mercer was bankrolling a good chunk of Trump’s whole campaign.

C

Well, what we’ve seen so far of the revelations regarding Russian interference and the magnitude of Russian malfeasance seems to be infinitesimally small, almost trivial, compared to this.

RM

No question about it. Cambridge Analytica is a very serious issue. I mean, not just about elections, but about political culture and social life in general, what that suggests and gets at, what’s being done, and what’s capable of being done. The Russian stuff, it may have had influence, and there is little doubt that an ethical sleazeball like Trump has no problem peddling influence to other ethical sleazeballs to enrich himself. But as far as the Russians actually stealing the outcome of the election itself? We don’t know exactly. It seems blown out of proportion.

But here’s the other irony. Every day we hear about Russian interference in the American elections, and how it was and is an obscene act of intervention into another nation’s affairs that no genuine self-respecting democracy would ever pursue or countenance. Yet we never hear anything critical of US meddling in numerous other nations’ elections and political systems as we speak. You’ll see in the same “liberal media” reports about how the US is trying to make sure the internationally monitored Venezuelan election gets canceled or boycotted, and the results dismissed if our side doesn’t win, or how we’re trying to undermine the economy of Venezuela to make the country uninhabitable, so the existing system cannot survive. And the US role in all this is downplayed as inconsequential or even a benevolent reflection of how much the United States embraces democratic values and the rule of law! Then we go off on Russia for doing essentially 1/1000th of that to us. It’s really difficult to take seriously when you look at it that way.

The Rise of the Surveillance Model

C

Going back to the Cambridge Analytica scandal: in your analysis of this event, at the heart of it all is the commercial principle driving our media system. This is of course what’s left out of the mainstream accounts of it. Could lay out where you think the connections are between the commercialization of media and the way in which Facebook has now been harnessed to these very worrying political ends?

RM

Well, one way to understand this is by looking back a bit. Catalyst readers under the age of forty probably won’t know this, but when the internet came along in the 1990s, it was held up, ironically enough, as a place where you could have anonymity if you so desired. There was the famous cartoon in The New Yorker that nobody knows if you’re a dog on the internet. It shows a dog at a keyboard. Because you couldn’t be tracked. You could do whatever you wanted. So you didn’t know who you were dealing with online because everyone was anonymous.

Most of the people who designed the internet didn’t want it to be a commercial medium, and that’s why they made it that way. The problem with that for capitalism was that it didn’t make for a very successful commercial model. In the 1990s there was endless talk of locating the “killer app,” the digital goose that would lay the golden eggs. Capitalists knew the internet was changing everything, but it seemed resistant to commercial exploitation. By the middle of the 1990s, Madison Avenue and the corporate community realized that if they were going to really have the internet be the nervous system of modern society, they had to make it advertiser friendly, they had to make it profit-friendly. They had to commercialize it, and the crucial thing to doing that was introducing the capacity and the protocols for surveillance, knowing who exactly is online, everything about them. That began in earnest in the late 1990s and changed the entire logic of the internet — turned it on its head in many respects.

C

Why, so early on, was it understood that the key to turning the internet into a commercial medium would be this tracking and surveillance capacity?

RM

The advertisers were the first ones who were on top of this. They were the ones who drove it initially. It was because they understood that no one will voluntarily watch or listen to or read an advertisement if they can avoid it, unless they are really interested in the product or something. But, typically, they will try to ignore it. So a traditional advertising model is: you buy a lot of ads and pummel people over the head with your ad until they can’t forget it, and hopefully you also get your target audience.

Well, the internet was proving to be like a nightmare for that model, because people would click away and they just wouldn’t watch an ad. On top of that, because of the anonymity, you had no way of knowing who was viewing the ad, so all the demographic work you had done to find your target audience in television and radio and newspapers and magazines — you didn’t even have that to work with. You didn’t know who was watching your ad, and you didn’t know if they were even going to watch it. They probably wouldn’t; no rational person would. Only a moron would click a banner ad. So they were freaking out and were desperate to find a solution. How do you find a way to get your ads to the right demographic? We’ve got to have a way to pummel people with our messages. And deep in the thinking was the prospective upside: here was a technology that conceivably could give corporations infinitely more power over consumers, not simply to advertise products, but to make sales. But that required wrestling away people’s ability to maintain their privacy, and doing so without their awareness of what was being done to them.

This movement was led, appropriately enough, by Procter & Gamble. The key was to find a way of tracking people’s internet activity so you could know who they were, where they were, and you could collect data on them. It didn’t begin all at once. It wasn’t an overnight 180-degree turn, but that process was underway by the mid-nineties, and then it was expanded to where we are today over the next decade.

C

But the initial design was for the internet not to be a commercial medium, so that means that its transformation towards this model required some sort of government intervention and government action, right?

RM

Absolutely. The internet is a testament to public spending, if not socialism. The private sector would have never developed the internet or the digital revolution on its own, because there was no apparent way to make profits off of it for decades.

This history has largely disappeared from memory. The internet was started by the combination of the Pentagon and military interests that bankrolled it for the most part, and a handful of major research universities — where much of the research was done by graduate students and young professors in the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s, who were often countercultural people. They were hippies. I knew some of these people in the ‘70s. It was a marriage of these two communities, and it was driven by noncommercial principles.

For the military, the idea was that this was going to be part of our national-security network that would protect us from an attack by the Soviets or our enemies, if they wanted to take down our communications. The internet didn’t have a central hub, unlike the telephone system, so if the Russians or the Soviets were to drop a bomb, there was no place they could drop it and wipe out all internet communication. The internet naturally circumvented any blockages; that was their incentive to do it.

The military clearly was always open to the idea of surveillance, as that would enhance its vision of national security, but that was not really on the table or the driving force prior to the ‘90s. There was no driving interest coming from the Pentagon, CIA, and NSA to commercialize cyberspace. Indeed, it was illegal to use the internet for commercial purposes before 1992.

The incentive on the side of the hippies and the scientists was, here was this revolutionary technology which can inexpensively connect everyone in the world. It sounds like pop culture blarney today, but there’s an element of truth to it too. That was certainly a romantic, idealistic, and powerful vision that would drive people to say, “This is an important thing to work on.”

Neither vision had much room for the idea that people should make money off of this, nor did advertising rise to take it seriously. In fact, when Marc Andreessen started Netscape, which he basically lifted from the University of Illinois where it was worked on, he found this to be a real problem.

C

You should tell our readers what Netscape is — most of them probably have never encountered it.

RM

Oh, right. Netscape was the first commercial browser and it came along in the early ‘90s, right when the world wide web began to make the internet a mass medium for the first time. Marc Andreessen was a young computer scientist from Illinois who started the company, basically taking the software that had been developed at Illinois, not for commercial reasons, and he commercialized it and made a fortune on it.

Anyway, he said in an interview later that the biggest problem he faced in that period — and that other people like him faced — was there was such abject hostility to any form of commercialism on the internet. He called it a militantly egalitarian space. I remember the first time I went online in the early ‘90s, and if you even went so far as to say, “Hey, I’ve got a bicycle for sale. I want to sell it for $50,” in some chatroom, you’d get irate emails flaming you, like, “Hey, get out of here with that crap, man. This is the internet, man. We don’t do that here. Go buy an ad in the newspaper if you want to sell your junk. This is not a commercial space.”

The Democrats Privatize the Internet

C

What you’re saying, then, is that it’s during the Clinton administration that the key changes are made to open it up to being overtaken by these profit motives.

RM

Yeah, the Clinton administration’s right in the middle of everything. The modern Democratic Party — as represented by the Clintons and Barack Obama — they were at the center of this. They were not just riding along in the caboose. They were driving the process.

It didn’t come about in one stroke. One of the reasons why this transition really has elicited little attention by scholars, and certainly little in the public mind — most people are unaware of this history—is that there wasn’t one piece of legislation like there have been in other technologies, where there’s a whole battle over a decisive piece of legislation. So, for example, the enabling of online surveillance was never done in an act of Congress. There was never a real debate over whether we want to have advertising on the internet, whether we want to let internet service providers and internet companies monitor people surreptitiously in everything they do and know all about you.

There was never a bill passed to authorize that. It was done several layers away from any public review whatsoever, where the public would have any idea, and it had virtually no press coverage, accordingly. So 99 percent of Americans had no idea this was going on. It was really a debate limited to internet engineers and commercial interests who were pushing it, in scientific and technical venues, not in public forums. Everything was done at the administration level or in semigovernmental venues authorized by the government.

If there was a single piece of legislation that stood out, it was the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which in theory and in principle was supposed to amend the traditional communications law that was passed in 1934 for the regulation of radio and television and telephony. It was supposed to upgrade the 1934 law in view of the digital revolution. The basic idea was that with the impending digital revolution, the traditional media would all become digital, so the distinctions between phone companies and cable companies, music companies and radio stations, film studios and television, would all disappear. Once everyone’s using the same digital technology, everyone does everything, and therefore the traditional regulations for different media sectors no longer held. You needed a new law that basically recognized the new technological world we’re in, and encompassed all of them.

The immediate reason why the 1996 law was important for the internet was that it changed ownership regulations. Limiting the number of government-granted monopoly licensees a single firm could have for radio or television broadcasting or cable and telephone systems was probably the strongest public-interest component in US communication law in the twentieth century. The new digital argument basically said that these traditional ownership restrictions should no longer apply, because if you limit ownership in one sector and don’t limit in the other, then firms in the regulated sector could not compete with firms in the less-regulated or unregulated sector. In some areas, like radio broadcasting and telecommunication, ownership restrictions were loosened immediately, and in others it was regarded as just a matter of time until the digital revolution made it necessary.

The theory was that this would lead to a massive wave of competition across the entire communications sector, because suddenly the phone companies would be doing cable, they’d me making pictures and TV, they’d be publishing books. I mean, everyone would be doing everything and any company making profits in communication would suddenly face strong competition on every front. It would be a Wild West, with consumers and society as a whole the ultimate victors.

C

Basically, it’s reducing the barriers to entry across sectors simultaneously.

RM

Exactly. That’s exactly right. And in so doing, it was supposed to welcome new players into the market, which would unleash a golden age of competitive investment and competition.

Put that way it seems like a reasonable proposition. But in the real world of US capitalism, the corporate lobbying over the terms of the new law was of mythic, virtually unprecedented, proportions between 1991 and 1996. The corporate lobbyists who wrote the law — or later helped the regulators “interpret” it — had no interest in creating more competitive markets; that would have been a nightmare for them. Their ambition pure and simple was to create more monopoly power for themselves while reducing any pesky public-interest regulations that might impede profitability

So the relaxation of ownership limits has had the ironic intended effect of leading to a huge concentration of market power. Telecommunications — meaning cable and satellite TV systems, telephone companies, ISPs — is the most striking example. Prior to 1996 there were strong limits against cross-ownership and mergers in these sectors since they were all based on government-granted monopoly licenses. The law supposed that once phone companies could enter the cable TV business and vice versa a golden age of competition would ensue. But the exact opposite happened as these huge companies did not blindly enter new markets to launch a competitive bloodbath; instead, they took advantage of the new relaxed ownership rules to merge and gobble each other up.

So it was that in 1996 there were nearly twenty major telecommunication companies, almost all ranking in the top half of the Fortune 500. Today three companies—AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, all among the very largest US firms—along with another half-dozen or so somewhat smaller firms, dominate cell phones, ISPs, cable, and satellite television. They operate much more like a cartel than a traditional oligopolistic market.

C

But what does this have to do with the internet giants we always hear about like Apple and Facebook and Google?

RM

There is an important distinction between the “ISP cartel” that I just described of AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, and the firms you just mentioned. The former are primarily US firms and make their monopoly by using US government monopoly licenses to have a cartel bottleneck over cell phones and internet access. These are the firms that are attempting to eliminate “net neutrality,” which we will talk about later. These firms want to use their control over cable, satellite, and cell phones to effectively privatize the internet. That is what net neutrality is all about. These firms are government-created monopolies and parasites pure and simple. Because of their political power, the US has the most expensive cell phones and internet access in the world and slower, crappier service than most European and Asian nations.

The great Internet monopolies of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google (Alphabet), and Microsoft are different. They are global firms and do not depend upon government licenses for the market power. At the same time, they have extremely close relations with the US government and much of their work relies upon research and innovations first developed under military auspices. In just two decades these five firms have conquered capitalism in an unprecedented manner. If you look at the largest companies in America today in terms of market value, the top five companies in the United States and the world in terms of market value are, in no particular order, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. They’re the top five companies in the world in terms of market value. It’s astonishing what a dominant role they play. They blow everyone out of the water and they are growing at breakneck speed.

I think that ten of the top twenty-four corporations in the US are internet companies, and fifteen of the top forty. The number of internet firms drops off sharply once you get past the top forty. There is not much of a middle class or even upper middle class in digital capitalism.

There are a lot of concerns about the power these five internet behemoths have and will have going forward, and fundamental political questions that must be faced head on. But the concerns and solutions are somewhat different from those regarding the “ISP cartel.”

The State-Media Complex

C

What that means is that what started out as a radically decentralized and almost impossible to monitor form of communication, within a few short years, became incredibly centralized, where all the information was passing through just a very small number of hands.

RM

Yeah. That’s exactly right. And these companies then undertake this very close surveillance, which then becomes available to the highest bidder for commercial purposes.

C

What does this do to the original two ambitions of the scientific community behind the internet, anonymity and better dissemination of information?

RM

Well anonymity, or, to use more familiar parlance, privacy, is all but gone. Cell phones, for example, are better thought of as tracking devices. But the issue with dissemination is very important too, because, alongside this centralization of control there is also the fact that journalism itself is dying. The internet hasn’t caused its death, but it has accelerated it, and eliminated any hope for a successful commercial news media system that can serve the information needs of the entire population.

The roots of its decline stretch back decades. For the first hundred or so years in American history, newspapers were heavily subsidized by the federal government, in order to encourage a rich array of news media. No one at that time thought the profit motive operating in the “free” market alone would be sufficient to provide the caliber of news media the constitution required. This was done primarily through free or nominal distribution of newspapers by the post office — almost all newspapers were distributed by post in the early republic — and also by printing contracts handed out with the explicit intent to help support different newspapers, by branches of government. In combination, the government subsidy of journalism as a percentage of GDP in the 1840s would be worth around $35 billion in today’s economy.

By the late nineteenth century the commercial system consolidated whereby advertising provided the lion’s share of the revenues, and the state subsidies declined in importance and, in many cases, disappeared. Publishing newspapers, building journalism empires, began to generate massive fortunes while continuing to provide owners with immense political power. This is the context in which professional journalism — purportedly nonpartisan, opinion-free, politically neutral and fact-obsessed — was spawned in the first few decades of the twentieth century.

C

So what does the internet have to do with this? Where is the crisis in journalism you talk about?

RM

The basic problem is that the giant internet companies — especially Facebook and Google — are taking away the advertising money that would’ve traditionally gone to some newspaper or journalism-producing entity. But Facebook and Google aren’t using this money to invest in more journalists or news reporting.

Why did this happen? The reason has to do with the end of anonymity, the surveillance ability. Initially when the internet came along, most newspapers and television stations thought, “Well, we’ll go online, and we’ll just simply do what we’ve always done online. People will buy ads on the New York Times website because people will come to our website to read New York Times articles and they’ll look at the ads, just like they did with our print edition. We might not make quite as much money on our online ads, but our costs will go way down because we don’t have to print up copies and distribute them. So it’ll be a wash, and we can still be a lucrative company doing commercial journalism.” The same can be said for the Washington Post or any other news medium.

This looked like the transition, say, in the year 2000, that we would slowly be seeing. It wasn’t clear we would lose commercial journalism. But what happened with the surveillance model is that no one buys ads on a website. You don’t go to the New York Times and say, “Hey, I want to buy an ad,” and hope and pray my target audience comes and looks at your website and sees my ad. Instead, you go to Google or Facebook or AOL, and you say, “Hey, I want to reach every American male in this income group between the age of 30 and 34 who might be interested in buying a new car in the next three months,” and AOL will locate every one of those men, wherever they are online, and your ad will appear on whatever website they go to, usually straight away. They will find them.

That means the content producers, in this case the news media, don’t get a cut anymore. Those advertising dollars used to subsidize most of their work. Now, if they do get an ad on your site, they get much less for it, and they only get it for those users who are in the target audience of the person placing the ad, not everyone who goes to their site. If you and I were to go to the same site, we’d get different ads, probably, working for different products. The amount of money that the actual website gets is infinitesimal compared to what it would be if they got the whole amount, like in the good old days.

The commercial model’s gone, which is why journalism’s dying, why there are very few working journalists left. No rational capitalist is investing in journalism because of its profit potential. To the extent they invest, it tends usually be some hedge-fund douchebags buying dying media and stripping them for parts, or some billionaire like Jeff Bezos buying the Washington Post or Sheldon Adelson buying the Las Vegas Review-Journal, always at fire-sale prices. The point of the exercise in these instances is to use the newspaper to shape the broader political narrative to the owner’s liking, with very few other voices in opposition. That is hardly a promising development for an open society.

It used to be twenty-five years ago that if there was a major news story, you’d have reporters from the Baltimore Sun, the Chicago Tribune, the LA Times, the Atlanta News covering the story, whatever it might be, in national or international politics. Today, it’s the New York Times and the Washington Post — more or less, that’s it — who are paid reporters. A generation ago state capitals and city halls were covered with reporters from different media; today the newsrooms in these buildings look like ghost towns. There’s hardly anyone in the game. The game is pretty much over.

It is elementary democratic theory that a self-governing society cannot exist without a credible independent news media. That point should be shouted from the mountaintops because it is the reality we are entering. This has two immediate consequences worth mentioning. First, we see an increasing problem with a younger generation that is more sympathetic to progressive values and socialist politics than any in my lifetime, but which is woefully uninformed and uneducated on basics of how the nation and world function economically and politically. Second, without a credible journalism that people can use as a basis for understanding and debate, it opens the door wide for a rejection of any news one does not like as “fake news.” This is Trump’s strategy, and it would have been absurd twenty-five years ago. Now it finds a population that has no reason to respect news media any more than Trump does.

C

But wait, Bob, you along with Noam Chomsky, Ed Herman, and the people at FAIR have been writing detailed studies for years revealing how the traditional mainstream news media served to advance the interests of the powerful and undermine popular democracy. Now you are telling me they are our necessary friends and allies?

RM

Not quite, though I see the irony. While the commercial professional news system was deeply flawed, at its peak it had positive elements — like having large staffs of reporters covering communities they live in — and aspects of it are dearly missed. There are almost no foreign correspondents left reporting on the world from locales across the world, for example. With the gutting of newsrooms, what has happened is that the worst problems of the commercial system are magnified — like the reliance upon corporate and government spin — and the desperation for money has led to all sorts of corruption in journalism practices that we have not seen for a century. Again, it opens the door to thinking that all news is fake news.

C

So on the one hand you have this incredible centralization of information, and on the other, the slow death of journalism. It sounds Orwellian.

RM

Exactly. The surveillance system is already being used for very insidious political ends. You can now acquire comprehensive information about large numbers of people — what their views are, what they’re interested in, what sort of appeals to them would be effective and what sort would not. This gives politicians a tremendous amount of power to cherry-pick propagandistic messages successfully and send them to people where it’s really going to work.

The Obama campaign did this extensively in his 2012 reelection. They used cutting-edge data collection to break down voters, target specific messages to particular groups, etc. It was purely a marketing campaign. It was astonishingly effective, and the genius of it was because all of the messages were targeted to individual people online, they were not really recognized by news media or the broader political culture. So even though Obama was far less popular in 2012 than he had been in 2008, the sophisticated tools his campaign developed allowed them to raise far more money online by constantly tweaking and individualizing the language in messages to supporters. Same thing for get-out-the-vote pleas.

The irony of the 2012 campaign was that it was the first time that the political parties were in front of the advertising people. The people who left the Obama campaign then went to Madison Avenue and went to corporate America and Silicon Valley to say, “Hey, this is how you really can do it now. We’ve learned how to target people. Obama’s figured it out.”

C

So you are describing a deeper phenomenon that’s now taking root, which is that political parties see their voters as a demographic which they try to manage, just the same way that corporations try to manage market perceptions. Voters are part of a marketing ploy, rather than a component of a democratic culture.

RM

Exactly. It is a long-term phenomenon but surveillance digital technologies have enhanced its power by orders of magnitude. So in 2012, Obama did wonders with this approach in galvanizing his supporters and shaking them down for contributions. It only took another election cycle for these technologies to turn to the dark side: instead of trying to locate and cultivate potential supporters, use the power of this technology to demonize your opponent and undermine support for your opponent. This has proven to be the most frightening development by far.

C

You mean like the negative political TV ads and stuff like that?

RM

It is actually much worse, because with negative TV ads lots of people will see them who are not sympathetic to the creator of the ad and will provide pushback, plus it will be possible to identify the message as a paid ad, which automatically undermines its credibility.

What is happening now — and this is what “fake news” really draws from — is a process called “push polling” which is technically illegal to do. It is considered the poison gas warfare of political campaigns.

Push polling refers to, when you really want to take out your opponent in a campaign, you call up voters who support that candidate and you claim you’re a pollster, and you say, “Well, would you still support Senator Jones if you knew that he was arrested on charges of pedophilia four times in the last two years?” And people who were Senator Jones supporters would go, “Well, no, of course not. I had no idea.” And you know, it’s completely toxic. It’s just a lie. You make up some story to trash your opponent. It’s illegal, so it is now done only rarely and has to be done with layers of deniability between the push polling and the candidate who benefits by it. Evidence suggests it can be incredibly effective if done well.

Well, that’s what fake news is. That’s what Cambridge Analytica does. Instead of being positive messages, lies you tell about your candidate to the prospective voters, you go out and you tell negative messages that are very powerful, targeted to the supporters of your opponent, as well as gin-up enthusiasm for your own candidate by the die-hard supporters. That’s what fake news is, and that’s what Cambridge Analytica does. You can just find stuff that will have traction with people, and it will undermine the support they’ll have. It is truly putting poison in the political atmosphere, and it can thrive because actual journalism has shriveled up. This sort of fake news is exponentially more powerful than push polling, because it can surgically reach millions of people, and it is not at present effectively subject to criminal prosecution.

C

Continuing with the reference to Orwell, we can imagine how the threat goes even deeper, right, to democratic freedoms?

RM

Yes. That’s what we really need to start thinking about. It’s not just advertisers or political candidates who have access to all this data. The military also has access to all the data these companies generate, pretty much at will. They work together to get that data, and they can use it for their surveillance. And this is terrifying because we’re at a point now where our military system’s completely off-limits to political control. There’s really no check on it in Congress whatsoever.

C

Right, all you have to say is the two magic words, “national security,” and everyone scatters.

RM

That’s right. I mean, there is this great line from a Pentagon official some time back when he confessed that they have to do their hardest lobbying when they want to get rid of a program, not when they want to add one, because the impetus in Congress is always to add more, just more, because nobody wants to be the guy who cut military spending.

The point is that militarism and democracy is a contradiction. This isn’t even a controversial point. This is a core of democratic theory. Even the framers of the American constitution understood that. They certainly weren’t democrats in many respects, but this is one thing you have to commend them on. They were obsessed with limiting the possibility of militarism. Even people like Madison, Jefferson, George Washington, or Alexander Hamilton – you find them making all sorts of warnings about the threat of permanent war and militarism to freedom, to a free society; how it induces propaganda and corruption, and how democracy can’t survive that.

But here we are, living in a permanent warfare security state that’s been expanding for more than seventy years. One of the great promises of the internet, you might remember — it lasted about three weeks! — was that it was going to inhibit all these crazy wars that the United States gets into. It was going to enlighten people as to what the military was doing, it was going to give people power to rein in the military, it was going to give people around the world a chance to communicate directly with us that wouldn’t be filtered by elites, and it would be a great victory for peace and for a peaceful world.

Well, instead what we have now is that the military has colonized the internet. If you were to go to the Pentagon today, the Pentagon breaks down the world into theaters. There’s the sub-Saharan Africa theater, there’s the Western Europe theater, there’s the South Asian theater, there’s the East Asian theater, the South American theater. Well, there’s also a cyber theater. They treat the internet as a continent of the world that they regard as a place they have to conquer and control. They do that in conjunction with the big five internet corporations, who get ample contracts working with them on this — they’re joined at the hip on this. They are all largely impervious to political accountability in our “democracy.” It is a fundamental contradiction that will loom large over the twenty-first century.

The Roadto Reform

C

Well, what this leads naturally to is the issue of possible reforms, and where to go from here — what can both get the surveillance state off our backs, but also potentially create a space once again for a revived news media. Let’s start with the short term. Let’s say the next presidential election or the next two presidential elections: what might be some achievable short-term reforms that could put us back on the right track?

RM

I think the short term and medium term are pretty much the same. What’s accomplishable is different in each of them. There are three basic areas we’ve got to work on.

First of all, we’ve got to come up with ways to have funding for independent, competitive, nonprofit and noncommercial journalism. Not state controlled, but real revenues that can pay for people to do good journalism in a competitive environment, but a noncommercial one. We’ve learned the hard way that advertising and journalism do not mix, and profits and journalism are a no-go. That’s already been established by the market. I have championed the plan first developed by Dean Baker, which calls for every American over eighteen to have the right to allocate $200 of government money to the nonprofit and noncommercial news medium of their choice. Massive government subsidy (or public investment) so we can have paid reporters in independent competing newsrooms; no government control over the journalism.

In the United States, we’ve gotten nowhere on that issue to speak of, although we’re trying. Sometimes, the fight for funding for public broadcasting or community broadcasting is a stand-in. It’s the best we can do to keep the principle alive of public funding. But they have a long way to go. The collapse of the commercial journalism model is a global phenomenon and people are wrestling with the issue worldwide. I suspect we will see breakthroughs overseas before we do in the United States. At any rate, an effective journalism system is sine qua non for a democratic society and this issue must be aggressively pursued.

The good news for activism in this area is that — unlike media reform work in the 1990s, by comparison — since capitalists have pretty much abandoned the field of journalism, there is no powerful profit-generating industry that opposes reform like the Baker plan because it threatens their modus operandi. The main opposition now comes from the political right, which has long understood that an informed and engaged citizenry is their mortal enemy.

The neoliberal crowd encourages and celebrates the collapse of journalism. A world of fake news — which they generate in tsunami proportions — is a world they can easily dominate and conquer. It is a world that gives us Trump, and Trump’s policies.

C

OK, is there anything that is actually in play?

RM

Yes, there is. We have made much greater headway in dealing with the ISP cartel of AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon, which we talked about earlier. These guys want to take their monopoly control over cell phones and internet access and effectively privatize the internet so they can enhance their profits dramatically. They want to be able to discriminate between users on their networks, both those who provide content and users, so they can shake them down for more money to use the network. The cartel claims that they do not need to be regulated because if consumers do not like what they do with “their” networks, consumers can go to a competitor. This is an extraordinary lie when these firms have a cartel where it is impossible for new capitalists to effectively enter the market, despite the gonzo profits that theoretically would await a new entrant.

This battle is termed net neutrality, keeping the ISP cartel from having any control over the content and usage of the internet. For a long time this was the rule online because of common carriage rules that existed for telephone companies from the pre-internet era. Back in the 1990s, most people assumed the internet was impervious to corporate or government meddling because it was a magical technology; we now see it was always because of public policy.

When the cartel made known its intentions to get politicians to eliminate net neutrality a decade or so ago, it led to arguably the greatest public-interest organizing campaign in recent communication history. By the second Obama term, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) implemented terrific, unequivocal, net neutrality rules. To be clear, it was more than an aroused citizenry that got the job done. The big five internet monopolists were supporters to varying degrees of net neutrality, too, because they did not want to be shaken down by the ISP parasites.

But once Trump came into power with his grand pledge to drain the swamp, he opened the floodgates and created an ocean of sewage. His new FCC, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, who cut his teeth as general counsel for Verizon, reversed the net neutrality rules. That matter is now being fought over in Congress and will likely go to the courts. But it is unlikely to return to where it should be until the Republicans lose control over the federal government.

C

That’s not especially encouraging.

RM

The jury is still out, because the overwhelming majority of Americans across the board are in favor of net neutrality. This is actually low-hanging fruit. But there is a lot of organizing to do, and that includes pushing the five internet monopolies to get back on board. What AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon did was to pick some of them off one by one, working on deals saying, “You’re safe. We aren’t going to mess with you. We’re going to mess with other people, and hey, wink wink, we now have the power to protect your monopoly from any serious threats. Just go along with the flow.” And so we’re in this nebulous area now where they’re not supporting net neutrality as strongly as they once did. They could potentially be pushed into supporting net neutrality again.

But there is an even more exciting trend that is taking place that holds much more promise. Even if we return to net neutrality, the problem remains that the ISP cartel still controls cell phones and internet access in the United States. They still make people pay far too much for an inferior system. They are parasites who have no economic justification for their existence; they do so simply because they own the politicians.

The good news on dealing with this cartel is there is an area right now where activism is working really well in the United States, and that’s with what’s called municipal broadband. Around 750 cities and communities around the United States for the last twenty years have launched municipal broadband-access systems, because the cable and phone companies were giving their communities such crappy service. These are usually smaller cities where it’s not really profitable for the big guys to go in and spend much money, and so you have cities that are getting cut out. It’s not like a bunch of hippie places. It’s not like Madison and Berkeley are doing that, although they have their examples of this, but it’s in places like Chattanooga, Tennessee. It’s in places across red states as much as blue and purple. All these communities are starting up their own municipally owned and run, noncommercial, non-surveillance, high-speed broadband systems that are cheaper and better than the commercial alternatives, and they’re very popular. The last time I looked around 170 of these municipal broadband systems were offering comprehensive service.

This is where the fight is. The cartel predictably has not responded to municipal broadband by lowering their prices and improving their service. God forbid. Instead, like a mafia gang threatened by the entry of a new drug dealer on their turf, they are attempting to exterminate the competition, calling municipal broadband “unfair” competition. The cartel has used its unrivaled lobbying clout in all fifty states to have them enact legislation that makes it illegal for communities to start their own municipal broadband. And they’ve succeeded in blocking it in many states. But in all the states where it’s gotten off successfully, like Tennessee, they can’t get it overturned because the people will just raise hell if you try to take away their municipal broadband system. The struggle for us will be to pass a national law that will not only make it possible in all fifty states, but also provide capital and all sorts of inducements to make it possible for communities to do this if they want to do it, and eventually we’ll get rid of this cartel.

The ultimate goal has to be ubiquitous and free broadband access run by a network of nonprofit and noncommercial services, operated along the principles of, say, the post office.

C

You described these as a short- or medium-term set of goals. They seem to me profoundly radical. Why would one expect either of the two parties right now to get behind something like this?

RM

Yes it seems very radical, and it certainly would be in the sense that it would shake up the system. But it’s not as unrealistic as it sounds. In the case of the ISP cartel, and in the case of journalism, the ground is fertile for organizing. Already we have seen candidates on the margins begin to raise these issues. In former member of Congress Dennis Kucinich’s recent campaign for the Democratic nomination to be Governor of Ohio, one of his key planks was universal free broadband for everyone in the state. I think Bernie Sanders is well aware of the crisis in journalism and the general movement he leads would be enthusiastic to back specific proposals.

But, of course, this will take mobilization. And this is the second point — while it will take political organizing, the thing is that we don’t have to start from scratch. So yes, it’s radical, but it’s not hypothetical. This is real-world stuff. And while in the present moment any change at all seems to be difficult to imagine, we have to reminds ourselves how unpredictable the future is. Looking at the historical markers all around us, the only thing we can be certain of is that the world in twenty years will be radically different than the world today, no matter what we do. Our job is to make the radical change toward a world that is progressive, humane, democratic, and sustainable. The future is wide open, for better or for worse.

C

But even if we organize around journalism and eliminating the ISP cartel, what do we do about those five monopolies that now are the US Steel and the Standard Oil of the information age? What do we do about Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft? It is hard to see how we can have a progressive and democratic society with these behemoths dominating the economy, the culture, and the polity.

RM

You took the words right out of my mouth. Eventually, we’re going to have to get in the ring with those guys.

C

Are you talking about breaking them up into smaller companies, like the telephone companies in the 1980s?

RM

No, I don’t think that can work. These markets tend toward monopoly. They’re easy to capture because you get tremendous network effects, which basically means that whoever is bigger gets the whole game, because all the users have tremendous incentives to go to the largest network. All the smaller networks disappear. When social media was starting up, there was initially great competition between Facebook and Myspace and one or two others. But pretty soon, once everyone starts going to Facebook, no one’s going to Myspace, because Facebook has so many more people on it. When you’re on social media, you go where everyone is. So all the other ones disappear and Facebook is all alone, and they’re left with a monopoly. That’s a network effect. McDonald’s hamburgers never got that. You didn’t have to go to McDonald’s to get a hamburger. You could go to other places still, so Burger King and Wendy’s can compete with them.

When you combine that, then, with traditional concentration techniques in capitalism, the massive barriers to entry — Amazon, Google, Microsoft, all five of these companies have to spend billions and billions of dollars annually on these enormous server farms and computer farms and their cloud, and in the case of Amazon, they have huge warehouses — that, along with network effects, pretty much precludes any lasting competition. So the idea that you can break up companies like that into thirty or forty smaller parts and have competitive markets doesn’t make any sense. These are natural monopolies, so to speak.

So that leaves two reforms. One is, you let them remain private, but you regulate them like the phone company was in America for a long time, AT&T. You let them make profits but hold them to public regulations, in exchange for letting them have a natural monopoly. To me, it doesn’t take much study to see that this is not realistic. These are huge, extremely powerful entities. The idea that you’re going to regulate them and get them to do stuff that’s not profitable to them — it’s ridiculous. Do you think you’re going to take on the five largest companies in the world and have that be successful? There’s no evidence to suggest that.

The other option is to nationalize them or municipalize them. You take them out of the capital-accumulation process, you set them up as independent, nonprofit, noncommercial concerns.

C

But you’re talking about nationalizing five of the biggest corporations in the United States. That would require a massive social movement, even an anticapitalist one.

RM

That’s probably the case. But, ironically, what I’m proposing hasn’t always been associated with the anticapitalist left. One person who wrote on this exact subject was Henry Calvert Simons, a laissez-faire economist from the University of Chicago, who was Milton Friedman’s mentor. He opposed the New Deal. He lived in the mid-twentieth century. Not a fan of labor unions or social security — a pure, free-market, capitalist. But he wrote widely that if you have a monopoly that can’t be broken into small bits, the idea that you can regulate it is nonsense. This monopoly is not only going to screw over consumers, it’s going to screw over legitimate firms, legitimate capitalist enterprises, because it’s going to charge them higher prices. He said, the only thing you can do if you believe in capitalism is nationalize them. Take them out of the profit system. Otherwise, they’ll completely distort the marketplace and corrupt the system into crony capitalism. I think that’s true, whether you believe in capitalism or, like me, you are a socialist.

But as difficult as it may seem today, this is going to be an unavoidable fight. Cracks in the facade like the Edward Snowden revelations and the Cambridge Analytic scandal are chipping away at the legitimacy and popular acceptance of these monopolies, but we have a long way to go. The place to begin is to identify the problem and talk about it and get it on the table. Don’t assume the issue cannot be raised because there is no ready-made functional alternative in hand. In unpredictable and turbulent times like these, issues can explode before our eyes, but it helps if we lay the groundwork in advance.

Once you start talking about taking the center of the capitalist economy and taking it out of capitalism, well, then I think you’re getting, like you said, you’re getting to very radical turf, and that’s exactly where we’re pointed — where we have to be pointed.

About the Author

Robert McChesney teaches in the communication department at the University of Illinois–Urbana Champaign.