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Portals are Power

By Robert Scheer, Online Journalism Review Editor

Our editor's thoughts and observations on the world of journalism.

Unfortunately, I was right. AOL's acquisition of Netscape gives the Virginia-based company a power over what we see and do on the Internet that mocks previous concerns over Microsoft's purported influence.

As I pointed out in my May 26 Commentary, while the government and everybody else seem to be focusing on the power of Microsoft to undermine a free society, it is America Online that more clearly threatens to exercise a dangerous control on our access to information.

The argument is a simple one: portals are power. Sure, Bill Gates and Microsoft make obscene amounts of money and have much of the software industry wired. But that has little impact on representative democracy and the free flow of ideas. We are hardly suffering a loss of freedom because most of us are using Microsoft Word instead of WordPerfect. But control over portals (those all important shuttles to the world of the Internet) is like controlling the ground transportation at Dulles Airport and being able to pre-determine which airline people fly on.

The point is not one of coercion. But whoever said that Big Brother needed physical force? Power can be built on the seduction of a Web site, ease of entry, convenience, all sorts of wonderful things. But when those marketing skills end up giving one company power over the choices given to 14 million people as they enter the Internet, there is a power that no modern dictator threatens to equal.

The Justice Department should step in and block AOL's acquisition of Netscape, precisely because Netscape represented one of the few serious challenges to AOL's supremacy in the portal market. If the government fails to act in this instance, they should immediately drop the suit against Microsoft, which has much less to do with the guarantee of a free marketplace of ideas.

Unfortunately, most government regulators know nothing at all about the online world other than how to check their e-mail. But those of us who increasingly depend upon the Internet, not only for breaking news but for access to relevant databases and archives, know that those who design the architect of a portal wield enormous power.

When you sign on to AOL, as admittedly I do, it is AOL which has determined the important headlines to call to your attention. It is an editor at AOL who leads you to polls and chat rooms, and who picks columnists to recommend. There is no editor in the country now who has the circulation and influence of that mysterious and unnamed figure (or figures) making those decisions. Some say it's Jesse Kornbluth, whom I've known. And I'm not here to deny that he is a competent and serious fellow. But let's not kid ourselves: AOL's facade of anonymity conceals a truly frightening power to mold what we 14 million subscribers come to think is important.

For example, throughout this last year, AOL has presented the White House crisis on its home page as the most significant happening in the world. That is an editorial decision of enormous implications. It is their right to do that, but to the degree that their portal becomes the entry point to online news for more and more Americans, it represents a profound skewering of the national dialogue.

Sorry to be the scold. And yes, I very much like AOL, or I wouldn't be a user, but it is precisely the success of the organization in seducing folks like me which now makes it a threat. We should have recognized that when AOL was able to gobble up Compuserve by being graphically flashier and better at marketing. But the folks at Compuserve in those days represented an alternative take on what is important, both in the news and in the larger society.

Yet there was no government outcry over this monopolization of AOL's only serious rival at the time. It is absurd that the Justice Department turned a blind eye to AOL's takeover of Compuserve while it focused an irrational ire on Microsoft.

Yes, Bill Gates is too rich, he's too cheap, and he's too uptight in his control of his basic product. But as the failure of, first, Mungo Park, and now Slate which is evidently going nowhere, demonstrates, Gates is a total incompetent in the area of thought control.

The problem is not bigness, per se, which has preoccupied the Justice Department. What should concern them deeply is power over the flow of information. And, unfortunately, AOL has demonstrated an uncanny ability to design the future library and living room of our minds. Their truly impressive success in hooking users is great news for their stockholders, but the implications for a representative democracy are truly horrendous. And it is precisely the well-being of the marketplace of ideas that should concern the Justice Department.

Copyright 1998 Online Journalism Review

Updated September 03, 1999