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<AOL Overload>

By Daniel Will-Harris 

See the latest reason why in the case of AOL/Time/Warner, bigger is not better

While Microsoft is slipping, it’s biggest competitor is growing—basically trying to become Microsoft II, and doing a frighteningly good job of it.

AOL, which started as a tiny online service, available only for the Mac, has turned into what some people justifiably call the Microsoft of the Web. AOL was smarter than Microsoft, in that they managed to get Microsoft to do what they wanted (put their icon on the desktop), even while Microsoft was building MSN to try to destroy AOL.

But Microsoft does not understand about content, or ease of use, and AOL does. AOL is kind of like “the internet for dummies” in software, and their own software is so big that it even manages to override pieces of Windows. How long can it be until AOL doesn’t need Windows? Well, it’s already happened—they’re working with Gateway to build a Linux-based computer to run AOL to access the web. (Not a good sign, since Gateway has, in my experience, the worst attitude about customers on the planet—even their own support people e-mailed me from home to say how sorry they were and tell me horror stories about how Gateway tells them to ignore customers.)

>AOL & Freedom of Speech

Despite its “dummy” attitude, AOL works for an awful lot of people. If you have a web site and look at your logs, you’ll probably see more visitors from AOL than from anywhere else. That’s a lot of power. They have become a kind of gatekeeper for the web—which is absolutely not good for anyone except AOL. It’s not good for individuals, and it’s not good for freedom of speech.

For example, AOL has already started deciding what people can and can't see on the web.  Brian Livingston’s excellent piece for c|net  explains how AOL’s filters for children and teens show some biases that have nothing to do with sexual or violent content. Their filters had a distinctly conservative slant, and actually blocked some Democratic sites.

This brings up serious questions—because even if speech is free on the web, if large ISPs can block sites of their choice, then how free is the web? Even if you agree with the bias of these filters—what happens when they filter your site, or sites you don’t think should be filtered? And it’s not just political; AOL is already blocking some of their competitors’ sites, too. Let’s talk anti-competitive.

It’s especially odd that AOL would filter this way, since they’re one of the founding members of the http://www.icra.org , the Internet Content Rating Association which is devoted to protecting free speech, being culturally non-specific and objective, and user friendly. What’s more, AOL’s system is inefficient, and, according to Livingston, “I found that even those children who were limited to the most restrictive “Kids Only” filter could, in some circumstances, view sex sites that were recently visited by adults.”

The fact is that the web should not be edited by third parties. You should be able to decide what you and your family see. And web site owners should be responsible enough to rate their own site. But AOL should not be allowed to become "Big Brother."

This is more than shocking, it's appallingly anti-free-speech. What if AOL decides it wants to promote certain candidates and hide others? What if it wants to promote certain views, and make conflicting opinions disappear? They have the power to do that.

If you do searches on AOL, surprisingly, competitors sites sometimes don't appear at all. This is what happened when I searched for some info I knew was on c|net and Snap, both competitors of AOL. It's as if they're being filtered out. Or, as happened in Communist Russia, they've being made invisible, as if they don't exist. This already shows what they're capable of.

>Fewer voices

In the old days, newspapers often had strong biases, but most cities had at least two papers, often with two different opinions. Then TV came along, with more varied opinions, so you could hear more ideas than just what you could read in your local paper. The web expanded that even further; you can hear voices from around the world, from individuals as well as news agencies. And all of that promotes free speech, which is one of the cornerstones of freedom.

But as media companies buy news agencies and get bigger and bigger, there are fewer and fewer voices and opinions. Disney bought ABC. Viacom bought CBS. Microsoft is in bed with NBC. Now AOL is "merging" (really buying) Time/Warner, and creating something potentially very dangerous—not just more centralized content, but ownership of the pipeline through which information flows.

>AOL’s about-face

Before AOL "merged" with Time/Warner, AOL was complaining to the government that Time/Warner, who owns a lot of cable companies, wouldn't let AOL in so they could get some broadband distribution. That is, in fact, the main reason they're buying Time/Warner; not for the content, but for the cable.

AOL insisted that these cables needed to be free for competition.

Now that AOL has Time/Warner, they're trying to close the cables, again, so they're not open to competition, and so that AOL can decide who gets on them. The hypocrisy is repulsive and dangerous.

One of the most important things about the web is that it's open. You don't have to buy your way onto it, like you do the airwaves or cables. In some places, you don't have to pay at all to build a web site. This allows more people to have their say—and it's a vital element of free speech in the future.

Right now, in the US, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) has rules about what broadcasters can do. They require them to offer a certain amount of public service messages, because they are using the "public airwaves." But cable operators do not have such controls, as was recently seen when Time/Warner turned off Disney/ABC in New York City, the single largest media market in the country.

So here you have AOL, who is filtering content in a biased way and trying to close cable access, and Time/Warner, who they're buying, shutting down their competition.

>Break them up before they merge

The question is—why have these warning bells not been deafening in the Justice Department? While they're busy splitting up Microsoft (which, while justified, is somewhat of a moot point now),  at the same time they are letting predatory AOL and Time/Warner merge into a company that will produce and distribute content, and control access to other content.

AOL is, now, even scarier and more dangerous than Microsoft. And this is one merger that should be stopped before it's begun. Otherwise, 20 years down the road, we'll all be suffering the consequence as AOL does what Microsoft did, to the 10th power. By that time, will there be enough free speech left to break them up? Or will most people, watching a AOL/Time Warner/Yahoo/Disney/ABC combo, be so blissfully unaware of the truth that they don't even know what hit them?

As Salon.com's Scott Rosenberg wrote , "The other mystery is how the companies managed to keep this massive, complex deal so completely a secret, with nary a leak in sight. These are both media companies, right? What kind of journalists work for them, anyway? Or could the tight lid on this story be a harbinger of the kind of controlled presentation of the news we can expect to see more and more of as the media falls into ever fewer corporate hands?

>What can you do?

The key to counteracting this is really for everyone to use the web to have their say. It's not exactly the same, since most people just go to the same big sites over and over. But it does put the info out there, and info on the internet has a way of spreading that's outside the control of traditional conglomerates.

You have to take responsibility, write the Justice Department, and make your opinion known. If you think that merging AOL with Time/Warner is a good idea—you have a right to that opinion. If you don't, you not only have a right to that opinion, you have a responsibility to make it heard.

>Bigger is not better

A recent event clearly shows that Time/Warner is already bullying--so when it gets even bigger and more powerful with AOL, why should we expect it to get better? I won’t. It will only get worse:

From Reuters: Time Warner Sets High Terms for Access -Wash Post    Saturday October 7, 1:26 AM EDT  

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Time Warner Inc (TWX) is requiring some Internet service providers to pay up to 75 percent of their revenue and relinquish some control of content to gain access to its high-speed network, the Washington Post reported on Saturday..

The Post reported that unnamed sources said the Federal Trade Commission is examining the terms of many of the deals proposed to smaller Internet service providers to determine if they violate Time Warner's promise to open its high-speed cable TV lines to competitors in the wake of its $183 billion merger announcement with America Online Inc (AOL).

Time Warner is requiring nearly 40 Internet companies in Texas to give up 75 percent of their subscriber fees and 25 percent of revenues from other sources such as advertising in order to gain access to its cable TV network, according to term sheets obtained by the Post.

In addition, the term sheets indicate Time Warner would get approval control over the Internet service providers' home pages and "prominent above-the-fold areas on the home page of the service for use."

"Totally ridiculous," said Dave Robertson, vice president and general manager of Stic.net, an Internet service provider in San Antonio with more than 10,000 subscribers. "The bottom line is, they don't have a desire to open their network."

Time Warner denied the charge, saying it and AOL are committed to open access, the Post reported.

Cable networks are one way to deliver high-speed Internet access to residential customers. Time Warner's cable network reaches 18.8 percent of all cable customers nationwide. ©2000 Reuters Limited. 

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Daniel Will-Harris is a designer and author whose work can be found at http://www.will-harris.com. His site features TypoFile Magazine and Esperfonto, the web’s only typeface selection system. He may be reached via e-mail.

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