Drive Through Democracy

The Info Superhighway could be a virtual democracy, or a shopping mall.

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I was sitting on the edge of my seat. Right there in front of our televisions, we were about to vote on NAFTA. With my trusty remote-control voting device in hand, I watched the experts wrap up their arguments. Then the Democracy Channel's smiling host came on the screen: "The NAFTA debate has been brought to you with the generous support of General Motors, General Electric and General Dynamics. We'll be back with the vote after these brief commercial messages."

Though it wasn't up and running in time for the North American free-trade agreement, there really is a Democracy Channel in the works, and it will have commercials. Dreamed up by former Viacom executive Jeffrey Reiss, the Channel will allow couch potatoes to participate in "electronic town meetings," express opinions on issues, and talk back to the pundits. And citizens need not worry that democracy will take a big bite out of their pocket books - financial backing is coming from Telecommunications, Inc. (TCI), the world's largest cable operator.

Interested in this unlikely marriage of commerce and democracy, I phoned Reiss at TCI headquarters in Englewood, Colorado. There, Reiss' sidekick and Democracy Channel co- architect Michael Lennon politely informed me that he and Jeffrey were not talking to the press until the details of the channel were firm (they still didn't know how much money TCI would give them). "Until all the ducks are lined up," Lennon said, "we don't want the spin doctors to get hold of this thing."

But based on the Info Superhighway plans that have flooded Report on Business and The Financial Post over the past few months, I suspect that we are the ducks and TCI already owns all the spin doctors. Because the plans for the Superhighway look more like a shopping centre than a town hall.

The vaunted information highway promises to deliver interactive communication to every home, office and public park on the planet. It will be built on the foundations of our current cable and telephone systems, with the addition of miles of fibre-optic cable. The surrounding hype seems to have sparked a cyber-democracy gold rush. Politicians like U.S. Vice-President Al Gore and New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, have opined that the Superhighway will mean the rebirth of democracy and citizen empowerment.

There may be some truth to these claims. Replacing our one-way media with two-way systems could create a more democratic communications culture, permitting ordinary people to produce and widely distribute media from their basements. Unfortunately, the people who are building the Superhighway don't seem to have this kind of democracy in mind.

The architects of the Superhighway are the same people who have spent the past 20 years buying up media production and distribution systems all over the world. In Canada, this includes high-minded corporate leaders like Ted Rogers of Rogers Communications, who recently announced that his contribution to paving Canada's information landscape would be to take over rival media giant Maclean Hunter. Pending CRTC approval, this $3.5-billion deal would make Rogers one of two head traffic cops on the Trans-Canada Infobahn, controling the market for of a third of Canada's cable subscribers, and large chunks of the Canadian publishing, paging, cellular and long- distance industries.

The other big player is Stentor, a cartel of Canada's regional Bell companies. On April 5, Stentor announced that it would plug $8.5-billion into a fibre-optic network that would be able to handle video-on-demand, two-way video conferencing, and so on, in order to compete with the big cable companies like Rogers. Such competition may sound positive, but as the newspaper, movie and network TV industries have demonstrated in the past, rivalry between a few massive media corporations hardly guarantees information democracy. In fact, these electronic fantasies are directly inspired by media-merger mania south of the border: Rogers himself has proclaimed that Canada needs to build a "Time-Warner of the North."

Not only are we are keeping up with the Americans, we should feel proud that a Canadian company will be the first to build a fully functional Superhighway. On January 24, Canada's third-largest cable company, Groupe Videotron, announced that a $750-million system called UBI (you-bee) would be up and running in the Saguenay region of Quebec by spring, 1995. Videotron's partners in UBI (Universal, Bi-directional and Interactive) include Hearst Corporation, Hydro-Quebec, Loto- Quebec, the National Bank of Canada, and Canada Post Corporation. According to Videotron's glossy press kit, UBI will provide its users with pay-per-view movies (all programing may eventually be pay-per-view, or pay-per-minute, on the Infobahn), interactive sports coverage (you choose the camera angles), lotteries, home automation, home shopping and home banking.

There wasn't any mention of democracy in the brochure, so I asked Jean-Paul Galarneau, Videotron's director of communications, whether he saw any connection between his company and the hype about virtual democracy. He sees the link: "Every year there is a world-wide competition of the best French language advertising. Last year it was held in Montreal. We thought that the public should decide which commercial would get the Grand Prize. So we showed all of the commercials on TV, and each commercial had a phone number attached to it so the public could phone in to an electronic system and vote. Within only a few hours of the voting, we were able to present the Grand Prize."

Aside from this empowering tale, Galarneau didn't want to spend too much time chatting about virtual democracy. He seemed more comfortable talking about exciting and liberating initiatives like this: "Canada Post has... lists that can pinpoint certain types of consumers. With this marketing division in place, Canada Post will be the first one on the bandwagon with direct-mail flyers on The Highway."

This indicates the kind of democracy that really excites Superhighway visionaries - the right to choose between a large selection of products. This consumerist bias is evident even in the technology that you will "interact" with at home, like the UBI interface: It includes a remote control, a credit card slot, a credit card PIN keypad and a printer to spit out receipts. It looks like a mix between a cable converter and a twenty-first century cash register.

As with most new technologies, the consumer info highway is being designed and built with almost no public consultation. In early February, the Information Technology Association of Canada - which includes Stentor, Rogers, IBM, Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and others - held a conference in Toronto called, "Powering Up North America: Realizing The Information Infrastructure For A Knowledge-Based Continent." Though the public was welcome to participate in the brainstorm, they had to pay $900-a-head if they wanted to get past the front door.

And it looks like the Canadian government agrees. On March 17, Industry Minister John Manley announced the creation of a federal Information Highway Advisory Council. Telephone and cable companies like the Stentor group, Rogers and Videotron make up the bulk of participants. Until public pressure forced a change of mind, government officials even proposed that most of the council's meetings be held in private - - even though the stated purpose of the council is to provide "advice on creating an open, accessible information highway."

Luckily, there are a few people who disagree with the position taken by ITAC and the feds. They include millions of computer network users and thousands of computer network organizers. These people argue that there is more to virtual democracy than living-room cash registers - and they have proof, because they are already using an information system that allows people to create their own communications and send it out to the world. This system is the Internet.

The Consumer Superhighway and the Internet represent two opposing models of interactive communication. The Superhighway most likely will be organized on what Electronic Frontier Foundation chair Mitchell Kapor calls "the broadcast model." In this paradigm, a small group of people own the system and decide what gets air time. According to Kapor, this model "breeds consumerism, passivity, crassness and mediocrity." In contrast, the Internet is a network of computers and data lines that are owned by thousands of different companies and public institutions. If one of these lines or computers disappears, information can simply be rerouted. Also, the content of the Internet is programed by the people who use it, rather than the people who own it. Kapor argues that a system like this "breeds critical thinking, activism, democracy and quality."

In fact, the Internet and the many networks attached to it have often been used to by-pass corporate and government information gatekeepers. During the Gulf War, the computer networks became a "people's news wire," providing a global source for information that was not "Cleared By The U.S. Military." According to Rory O'Brien of Web, Canada's social- change computer network, that included information about Patriot missiles causing damage to civilian areas and peace demonstrations that never made it on the six o'clock news.

The multitude of discussions that take place on-line are further proof that democracy is alive and well and living in cyberspace. Perhaps most exciting is that individuals talk on the Internet who are otherwise kept apart by social and physical barriers. On the Victoria FreeNet, for example, discussions about Clayoqout Sound resulted in a pro-logging SHARE group member coming over to the side of the environmentalists.

Incendiary talk like this, however, may not make it onto the Superhighway. With all of the lucrative home shopping and movie channels planned, who will make space for money-losers like a social change channel? Of course the Internet could co- exist with the Consumer Superhighway, but it would quickly be out-glitzed by its younger cousin. Democratic two-way communication would best be served by lanes on the Superhighway based on the Internet model of public control. These would provide free public access, two-way video programmed by the public, and global connectivity.

But this will only happen if the public stands up for its interests. The regulations and decisions that define Canada's electronic landscape will be made over the next few years, almost irreversibly. As Victoria information activist Clyde Bion Forrest says, "Right now we are at a really critical time in terms of what we do with this thing. It could become just like television." In fact, Canada experienced a similar "critical time" in the early 1970s, when the cable regulations were being written by the CRTC. Members of the public then made sure that they were included, demanding and winning space for community television on cable systems from Labrador to Vancouver Island.

In addition, it's important to keep global inequities and the Internet's own democratic shortcomings in mind. Forty per cent of the world's population are without access to electricity and 65 per cent have never used a telephone. Since the Superhighway corporations plan to install their systems solely in locales that can afford them, global information inequity is likely to increase rather than decrease. And the Internet, despite its openness, is rife with sexism and technocentrism.

The Web, along with its sister networks in the Association for Progressive Communication (APC), is taking steps toward addressing these concerns. For example, all of the staff at Nicaragua's APC network, Nicario, are women. APC networks in the U.K., Sweden and Ecuador have been headed by women. And APC members are working with people in the South to develop systems and software that will allow them to run autonomous networks in their own regions.

All these groups can provide a solid foundation, but as New York's public access collective, Paper Tiger Television, points out, there need to be more grassroots efforts at "staking a claim in cyberspace." If such a claim is not made, we'll be stuck with shopping malls in a box. Or, in the words of communications scholar Herb Schiller, "a corporate pipeline into our heads."

Several Canadian groups are working to ensure that democracy in cyberspace is more than virtual. Here's how to contact them:

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