Is the AOL-Time Warner merger safe for democracy?

America Online and Time Warner have announced that AOL will buy Time Warner to form a mega Internet/ cable/ publishing/ moviemaking/ television/ music empire. The merger is the biggest in history.

The American Prospect Online has asked several distinguished experts to answer the question: "Is the AOL-Time Warner merger safe for democracy?"

Joseph Turow:

The AOL-Time Warner combination does not mark an apocalyptic end to the possibility for wide-ranging opinions on the Web. Even when (and if) the merger goes through, millions of Web sites espousing a wide range of ideologies will continue to exist. One part of the Internet will always be a realm for people who want to connect with others, trade ideas, share suggestions. But the proposed merger announces quite loudly what has actually been clear for some time: Corporate forces are moving quickly to become the highest-profile players on the Internet, carrying with them a commercial culture that will permeate the most trafficked parts of the Web and become its defining feature.

As the digital interactive environment takes shape in the coming years under powerful marketing forces such as AOL Time Warner, we will increasingly get our views of the world from firms that see us through the lenses of target marketing, profiling, and database management. Different types of people, and even different individuals, will receive different information streams, and even dissimilar versions of TV programs, depending on what marketers think of them. Although all of us will probably still share basic headlines, most of the news and entertainment stories we get will be dictated by the way commercial interests with "intelligent" agents interpret our clickstreams and lead us to content through "free" or discounted offers.

In the absence of strong counter-measures, the real cost will be a society that is electronically divided and finds it harder and harder to talk across these divisions.

Joseph Turow is Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania's Annenberg School For Communication. One of his recent books is Breaking Up America: Advertisers and the New Media World.

Robert McChesney:

The merger of AOL and Time Warner -- the largest in history -- is part of the stunning wave of concentration of ownership in media and communication industries over the past decade. There were 12 major telecommunication companies in 1996; today there are six, and many of them have moved aggressively into new areas. AT&T, for example, is the largest cable TV company in the nation. The media system itself is now dominated by eight or nine massive firms, and another 12 to 15 round out the system. It is largely non-competitive in the traditional economic sense of the term, so these two-dozen profit-driven companies, owned and managed by billionaires, account for nearly the entirety of the U.S. media culture. It is a violation of any known theory of a free press in a democratic society.

The merger is also part of the related trend toward "convergence"; meaning that with the rise of digital communications, the dominant firms in media, computing, and telecommunications are combining into super-colossal transnational corporations the likes of which we have never seen before, nor even imagined. Indeed, this deal, which unites the largest media firm with the dominant Internet firm, will in all likelihood trigger another round of mergers that should leave the entire realm of communication under the thumbs of a small handful of companies. And this is for the entire world, not just the United States. As Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin stated on a recent CNN broadcast, firms like AOL Time Warner now are more important than governments, educational institutions, or any other element of society.

The AOL-Time Warner merger hammers the last nail in the coffin of the argument that the Internet will provide the basis for a whole new group of commercial media to arise and challenge the dominance of the traditional media giants. While the Internet will offer billions of websites, insofar as it is a commercially viable medium, it is going to be dominated by the same few remaining giants the dominate our media and telecommunications systems. If anything, the Internet is accelerating the pace of concentration, because firms know that in times of rapid technological change, it is far better to be very big and have less competition than to be smaller and have more competition. That is Capitalism 101.

Moreover, it is worth reflecting on how rapidly the Internet has changed over the past few years. Bill Gates did not invent the Internet. (If anything, he is the Jed Clampett of the Information Age, using his monopoly to corner other markets.) The Internet is a direct testament to socialism, or, at least, to public sector policy. The government created and subsidized the Internet and its predecessors for three decades; private sector firms wanted no part of it because they couldn't figure out how to make a buck from it. Then, in the early 1990s, without a shred of public debate or deliberation, in total silence, with no media coverage whatsoever, the Internet was privatized and turned over to Corporate America. The prohibition of commercialism was lifted.

It is an extraordinary case of corruption; the public does the spade work and takes the risks, Wall Street takes control and rakes in all the profits. The public gets nothing in return except a tidal wave of corporate PR bulls**t extolling the virtues of the corporate-run digital era. The corporate run news media treats all of this as a business story, where the control over media and communication rightly resides on Wall Street, and only rarely is it asked how this affects consumers. And the even more fundamental question never is pursued: How does this affect us as citizens?

So this is where we are at the dawn of the new century: our communication system is changing at a bewildering pace, and the only thing certain at present is that the eventual course of the Internet -- the central nervous system of our era -- will be determined by where the most money can be made, regardless of the social and political implications. We are driving 10,000 miles an hour down a very dark street and nobody knows what lies ahead. We only know that the handful of billionaires directing this operation cannot care about anything about maximizing their profits. Everything else is irrelevant. And the government, almost entirely under the thumb of these corporations and their super-powerful lobbies, is doing everything it can to expedite the process.

Isn't this absurd? At the very least, it is highly undemocratic. And it is in all our interests -- even those who do not share my skepticism toward the so-called free market and commercialism -- that it change.

Robert McChesney, professor at the Institute of Communications Research at the University of Illinois, is the author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy: Communication Politics in Dubious

Jeff Chester:

The proposed merger of AOL and Time Warner should serve as a wake-up call to everyone concerned with the future of the Internet and online communications services. What was once hailed as the most diverse, democratic forum for the exchange of news, information, and ideas has suddenly moved one giant step closer to the tightly controlled, "branded" environment of the mass media conglomerates. While most of the headlines have focused on the sheer size of the merger, and on the high profile of each of the partners, it is rather the "fine print" of implementation that really matters: How will the nation's largest Internet service provider and the second-largest cable system, with over 30 million customers between them, manage its new system? Will AOL Time Warner's proprietary content receive favorable online transport, placing unaffiliated programming at a competitive disadvantage? Does the new company propose to build the same kind of closed, proprietary system that AT&T recently unveiled?

Dollar signs and household brand names aside, in short, the proposed AOL-Time Warner merger raises serious questions about the future openness and diversity of the online world.

Jeff Chester is Executive Director of the Center for Media Education.