Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy
by Robert W. McChesney
Summary by Ellen Slavitz
Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo. We believe they exist to make our lives more convenient, more interesting, more fun. According to Robert W. McChesney, these Internet marvels are the products of carefully designed operations that enable a small number of corporations to earn huge profits, while providing the public with less and less value, service, and information essential in a democratic society.
McChesney, a media activist and professor at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is the author of Rich Media, Poor Democracy and dozens of other publications in which he describes how the growing concentration of media ownership has decreased variety, competition, public interest, access and content quality. McChesney is also co-founder of Free Press, a media activist organization based in Washington DC that “advocates for universal and affordable Internet access, diverse media ownership, vibrant public media and quality journalism” (Freepress.net).
In his latest book, Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy, McChesney meticulously documents how the Internet went from a non-commercial, seemingly utopian and democratic technology to its current mega-profit maker dominated by a small number of major players. He applies theories of political economy, “an understanding of capitalism and its relationship to democracy” (p. 13) to the evolution and current state of internet ownership and control.
McChesney explains how government, guided by teams of handsomely paid lobbyists, has enabled a cartel of huge corporations to own and control the Internet, much like a tiny number of companies have come to dominate the wireless and cable industries. Large players have gobbled up small and medium sized Internet ventures, eliminating competition and ensuring maximum profits and control.
McChesney details how Internet companies earn enormous profits through sophisticated methods of collecting personal data, which is then sold to advertisers. Every Google search or Facebook “Like,” every Web site visit is monitored, accumulated, and monetized for advertisers. “If you’re not paying for something, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold,” says one of McChesney’s sources. Google, Facebook, and similar sites may have started as useful technological innovations but have quickly transformed themselves into businesses that sell our personal information for enormous profits.
McChesney warns that this massive collection of personal data is also being used in government surveillance. Despite the complicated privacy statements that we that most of us quickly click past when signing up for Web sites, personal privacy on the Internet is all but nonexistent. Internet companies are happy to accommodate surveillance activities, which add to their profits.
McChesney is particularly concerned about the decline of quality journalism. News providers have greatly reduced expensive investigative reporting, instead regurgitating “official” prepackaged messages. The result of this lack of real journalism was, for example, the Iraq War, support for which rested on the Administration’s claims of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” that went virtually unchallenged by the media.
As in his previous book The Death and Life of American Journalism, McChesney argues in Digital Disconnect that quality professional journalism, even in digital format, cannot exist on advertising-based revenue. He views quality journalism as “public good” like schools, roads, and police, and like those services should receive public, non-partisan funding.
In the last chapter, McChesney proposes a list of media related reforms, including strict regulation of advertising; limits on ownership of broadcast media; expansion of nonprofit and publicly supported media and journalism; and stricter regulations controlling online privacy and surveillance. The rest of the chapter presents a broader economic analysis. The technology fueled increase in productivity in this country has not, in McChesney’s view, translated into a higher standard of living for most Americans because “capitalism is not a sane political economy.”
However, throughout Digital Disconnect, McChesney cites experts representing a broader political spectrum who believe that the Internet, along with other media, should be redirected to better serve the needs of a greater percentage of the population and, as a result, the needs of dem