Only a few days before the announcement of the AOL-Time Warner merger, Time Warner chief executive Gerald Levin took part in a CNN discussion on the future of the media. Global media, said Levin, are fast becoming the predominant industry of the twenty-first century–so powerful that they may in fact be more important than governments. “So what’s going to be necessary is that we’re going to need to have these corporations redefined as instruments of public service,” he said, adding, “It’s going to be forced anyhow because when you have a system that is instantly available everywhere in the world immediately, then the old-fashioned regulatory system has to give way.”
We couldn’t agree more. The merger of these two behemoths makes it clear that change is happening so fast, and with such deep implications for democracy at home and around the world, that our old institutional safeguards simply won’t do. The very fact that the AOL-Time Warner merger represents the first instance in which an Internet company has, in effect, gobbled up a traditional “content provider” (of course, Time Warner is much more than that) is proof that we have moved to a whole new plane in terms of media convergence. We need far-ranging discussions of how antitrust policy should apply to these hydra-headed media creations, which in one line of business may be competitors and in another collaborators or co-owners. To take one example, if AT&T’s acquisition of Media One goes through, it will be a competitor of Time Warner’s cable business, but at the same time it will own a big chunk of Time Warner Entertainment.
We also need a public dialogue to explore exactly what, as a society, we want to set out as our national media policy. The Congressional hearings Senators Mike DeWine and Herb Kohl promise to hold offer one forum, but the dialogue cannot be left entirely to Congress, which has shown itself to be all too willing to do the bidding of the media giants. The public must be engaged as well.
Open access has been a hallmark of the Internet–the idea that every Internet user has a choice of service providers and can roam the Net at will, be his or her own publisher, construct his or her own world from the rich resources on the World Wide Web. But the rush of mergers that will follow and the content-provider pacts already forged (e.g., the Washington Post, NBC and MSNBC) create the worrisome prospect that before long we will have the equivalent of television: 500 channels and nothing worth watching; while the cacophony of independent voices that makes for vibrant public discourse will be pushed to the margins, where hardly anyone will even know to look for them.
Beyond that, we must begin to consider the kind of global oversight that Levin appeared to suggest in his CNN remarks. AOL chief executive Stephen Case noted in a press conference on January 10 that he and Levin had become close friends over the past year as a result of co-chairing the Global Business Dialogue, a kind of Business Roundtable for the world Internet industry. At its 1998 meeting in Brussels, which launched the GBD, members agreed that “regulation must be kept to a minimum” and, as Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Middelhoff later put it in an outreach letter, that the GBD must “encourage a market-driven environment.” Those who believe that the marketplace of ideas is the most relevant market must find a way to insure that what develops is a public interest-driven environment in which not 500 channels, but 50 million websites, 500 million voices, bloom.