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The Netscape Tragedy

Posted by JonKatz
from the They're-coming-for-us dept.

The bad news about the new Netscape-AOL-Sun conglomerate is that the battle between individual expression and freedom and corporation domination and greed on the Web just got a lot uglier. We're getting the one thing the world needs the least: another giant, powerful and synergistic information hydra. We don't, as journalists are saying, finally have some competition for Microsoft. We just have another Microsoft.

And the good news? There isn't any:

Don't kid yourself.

The absorption of Netscape into yet another media hydra, an AOL-Sun-Netscape conglomerate with earnings of more $12 billion, is a catastrophe. There are no upsides or soothing rationales.

It's tempting to view the proposed merger only in technical terms -- best browsers,compatible servers, e-mail and IRC formats. Or in simplistic moral terms: whether or not these companies are "good" or "evil."

AOL, like Apple, Microsoft, Sun and a score of other companies, do both good and bad things. They have helped make the Internet accessible to all sorts of people who would never have gotten there without them. They make some nice products, make possible some powerful communities.

But they never, ever, celebrate individual freedom, or the toll-free movement of information and ideas.

Giant corporations are incapable of ideologies like "good" or "evil." They answer not to individual people, but to coalitions of lawyers, analysts, marketers, stockholders and boards of directions. All of these diverse interests share precisely the same goal: making the maximum amount of money in whatever way is feasible.

CEO's can be ethical or like, as they wish. But they won't last two financial reports if they're unprofitable, wasteful or inefficient. Or if they surrender even a few customers to any non-profit ideal. Moral, historical or human values are relentlessly subordinated to those goals. No ethics take precedence over profits, no employee is more important than efficiency and bottom line.

Many geeks have little to do anymore with traditional media like newspapers, commercial broadcasting outlets or newsmagazines. This is largely because almost all of this media has been corporatized in recent years by theme park operators and light bulb manfacturers. So their fate seems remote, even irrelevent.

If this disconnection from media is understandable, it's also dangerous.

Geeks take the freedom and diversity of the Net for granted. They are sometimes made lazy and arrogant by the unchallenged freedom and creativity their new technology has given them. Growing up in this culture, it's difficult sometimes to imagine the corporaizing of the Net, or to believe the techno-savvy can't easily escape it. We'll see soon enough.

Corporations are mostly good at acquiring things. Hardly any have created much of their own, or tolerated environments in which people can speak freely. No mainstream media entity of any sort owned by any large corporation would tolerate a single Slashdot thread discussion for one day. Or ever has.

The Netscape Marc Andreesen and Netscape employees created in the l980's was one of those very few modern media companies with some ethic beyond greed -- it was, like the OSS movement, founded on the idea that making money and keeping the Net open and free were not incompatible. Netscape encouraged something no large corporation in the history of media has ever done -- the free distribution of a valuable and creative product.

You will never live to see AOL or Sun do that, or now, if this deal goes through, Netscape again either.

The underlying issue here is the one that created sites like this, movements like OSS, and has, in fact, made the future control of the Internet so intense a political issue: who will run cyberspace, individuals or corporations?

Will it be a place that continues to be an unprecedented source for the free movement and distribution of information, as founders like the late Jonathan Postel, co-founder of the Internet Society, and one of the true Fathers of the Internet, intended?

Or will it just be another profit-making opportunity for the giant conglomerates who are taking over both media, culture and retailing?

The mainstream media was happy to hear about the latest new conglomerate taking shape this morning. It's is already presenting the devouring of Netscape by AOL as the emergence of a healthy competitor to Microsoft (which by comparison, had revenues of $14 billion last year).

Don't buy it. Much of journalism and related information fields like publishing have been transformed, and in some cases destroyed in recent years by its acquisition into greedy, soulness and mass-marketed corporations like Time-Warner-Turner, Disney, News America, or others. And small businesses all over the country are being destroyed by the relentless Wal-Martting of the country. These companies -- Wal-Mart, Blockbuster - don't just sell things cheaply. The affect the things we can buy or see. Since Blockbuster won't sell or rent NC-17 movies, producers don't want to make any. Since Wal-Mart thinks rap lyrics are too obscene and vulgar, fewer rap artists are getting record contracts (Wal-Mart is now the largest retailer of CD's in America).

The idea that the creation of a giant electronic information and commerce site on the Web is good news for anybody but the stockholders of these companies would be a joke in any other culture. But this one has been numbed to the idea.

These two conflicting value systems -- invididuality and corporatism -- are completely anti-thetical to one another. No giant corporation is the friend of the individual. Neither thrives in the prescence of the other. Each makes the other impossible. They don't share the same goals or needs.

The Web is the freest culture in American life precisely because it has returned individuals to media, and given them the tools to use that freedom in new ways. Anybody with a computer is a publisher, editor or producer. They can voice opinions they can't voice in newspapers or on TV. They can connect with individuals they couldn't connect with before.

They can use radical new technologies -- e-mail, for example -- for free. They can join all sorts of new communities and gather information freely, without having to pay anybody for it. They can even talk openly about sex,death and religion: topics never openly discussed in the corporate media culture.

This freedom is anathetma to corporations, as the Halloween Document written by a Microsoft engineer about the Open Source Software movement symbolized so clearly. If OSS or the free software movement continues to grow, these corporations are emperiled in the most basic of ways. And unlike individuals, these companies know how to use the law and government regulation. They employ lawyers and lobbies, and know how to reach lawmakers and regulators. TV wasn't a month old before it was leased by the government to three greedy entrepeneuers for half-a-century.

There have never been companies as powerful as the giant corporations forming to control global markets. They can offer things nobody else can offer. As small business near Wal-Mart's have learned, it's impossible for smaller entrepeneuers, let alone individuals, to compete. They suck up the space around them. This doesn't make them evil. Or does it?

The free movement of ideas and the empowerment of individuals are a "direct threat" to big corporations,as Microsoft's Halloeen document pointed out.The author of that memo had done his homework. He was right on the money.

The mass-marketing ethic of big companies mitigates against outspoken, individualistic or diverse expression, the kind on sites like this every day. How many op-ed pages are vigorous and outspoken? How many idiosyncatic voices do you see on the CBS Evening News?

In mass-marketed, corporate media, all opinion is related to one or two points-of-view, as in the exhausted and discredited philosophies of liberalism and conservatism that are suffocating the country's civic system. Online, hundreds of thousands of flowers are blooming all of the time.

America Online is drooling over the Digital Age. It has noted publicly that worldwide Internet commerce could reach $3.2 trillion by 2003, or 5 per cent of global sales. Wall Street is drooling too. Financial analysts this morning were delighted at the AOL-Netscape-Sun merger, correctly seeing Sun as a valuable partner for AOL. As a corporate software company with with a sales force of several hundred thousand people already in place, Sun could be a valuable partner for AOL in terms of developing Sun's programming language Java. And even thought Netscape's browser is no longer a revenue source, it is a powerful distribution channel for Java technology.

So Netscape, one of the pioneering kinds of new media companies that emerged on the Interet -- companies that had values as well as the potential for making money -- becomes just another strategic move in the evolution of the one thing the world needs least: another giant media mega-corporation.

But the world has not gained a competitor to help keep Microsoft honest. It's just getting another Microsoft.

It's comforting to dismiss this awful news in various ways. The posts on Slashdot this morning were filled with people struggling to find reasons why this isn't so bad. AOL has a bum rap. Microsoft needs the competition. Maybe so.

But media history and common sense suggests it's their worst fears that are more likely to be on the mark.

If there is any reason to hope, it's the radically different nature of the Web itself. Technology does empower individuality on the Internet. Newspaper readers and commercial TV watchers had few choices. We have lots. Can enough individuals become entrenched here before the big companies do? Nobody really knows. To some extent,the Net is revolutionary. It is making its own history.

The race is definitely on. More than seven million people have already taken the trouble to acquire, improve, use and distribute systems like Linux that are efficient, shared and free. May their numbers continue to grow.

And fast.

jonkatz can be e-mailed at jonkatz@bellatlantic.net

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The Netscape Tragedy

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For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong. -- H. L. Mencken

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