Should Corporations Control Online Communication?

Source: COA News

Large corporations own many of the most popular participatory media websites on the Internet. We’re talking about spaces that could end up becoming one of the most important tools to reinvigorate our democracy. What makes us so willing to trust corporations with online participatory media?

Not long ago I attended an excellent conference entitled "Democracy & Independence: Sharing News & Information in a Connected World". The title of one of the main panels was “Does Ownership Matter”. For me it seemed like a ridiculous question; study after study has shown that the corporate media have conflicts of interest that filter the news and information they can provide the public. If nothing else, the widespread failure to question the Bush administration in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq should be a glaring reminder that ownership does matter. There is a reason why 60% of the US citizenry held at least one misconception about the Iraq war shortly after it began. We can thank corporate TV news for that depressing statistic.

Much of the discussion at this panel seemed to revolve around how the corporate media should employ their own participatory/citizen media projects so as to further engage citizens in their news coverage. Again, to me this is exactly what we want to avoid, the corporate colonization of citizen media is not the answer. If anything we need to disengage citizens from corporate media.

The reason participatory citizen media has been so popular and successful is partly due to the fact that their platforms have been relatively independent of corporate control, therefore they have allowed people to espouse independent points of view. Either a major corporation did not own these websites, or the corporate owner did not yet dare to interfere with their newly acquired online communities. That was then and this is now.

It’s not hard to find cheerleaders for the latest rise in online participatory media communities. But there seems to be nobody questioning the parallel rise in corporate buyouts, and commercialization of these spaces. After the corporate media dropped the ball on the invasion of Iraq, most of us have learned not to trust the corporate media. What makes us so willing to trust corporations with online participatory media? We’re talking about spaces that could end up becoming one of the most important tools to reinvigorate our democracy.

Watch this short video to see what some advocates are saying:

Many advocates focus almost solely on the technology involved in online participatory media. The thing is technology is ambivalent; meaning technology takes on the use desired by those who control it. Interactive tools that allow citizens to upload their own videos can be empowering, but is it really a plus to have citizens producing commercials for corporations as they are with Current TV? Is it really so good to have the most interactive media tools people have ever had access to being utilized to further entrench corporate brand loyalty and further promoting conspicuous consumerism? It’s slightly ironic that the TV network created by the “environmentalist” Al Gore, is further pushing young people to consume more products. Does Al Gore realize that there’s a link between our consumer culture and our environmental catastrophe? I guess not.

And Current TV is far from the only corporation in the participatory media game. Fox Interactive Media recently spent $580 million to acquire Google, a large and evermore powerful media corporation, owns one of the most popular blog platforms: Furthermore, Youtube: the most popular online video site on the Internet, has now partnered with Time/Warner/AOL (the largest media company in the world), and is seeking other such partnerships (Youtube is also a private corporation).

The fact is that because these corporations are operating to make a profit, they simply want to have a popular website and then sell our eyeballs to advertisers and marketers. As Wired Magazine put it, “Rupert Murdoch is betting he can transform a free social network into a colossal marketing machine.” It’s no wonder that going to the homepage of many of these corporate participatory communities often slams an ad, trailer, or product placement in your face.

The more these sites bow to advertisers the less exposure users will have. This flies in the face of everything these websites are supposed to be about; an open space for citizens to communicate and share media. The basic openness of these sites is now the bait to which these corporations have caught a large audience. These sites are starting to feel like newspapers that have front pages filled with ads, with the opinion section way in the back. Citizen produced media is often buried, their voices largely unheard, while paid content enjoys everyone’s attention. How far can this process go before citizens move on and create a new place to openly communicate?

This said the situation is far from black and white. Corporate participatory media websites do provide a level of exposure that is hard to find elsewhere. It is undeniable that citizens and public interest organizations will and should continue to use these sites as tool to amplify their voices. However, we should also support existing participatory media websites run by pubic interest organizations (non-profits), and create new ones to fill the gaps left by corporate media.

The good news is that there are some great participatory websites that are currently run by organizations with a public interest mandate. One example is, which is an online community “that freely hosts grassroots video, audio, music, photos, text and public domain works”. OurMedia is the open source equivalent of Youtube. Another great project is SourceWatch, which is a citizen run directory that focuses on documenting the developments in the public relations/media industry. At SourceWatch citizens collaboratively research and write investigative articles. SourceWatch is a project of the non-profit Center For Media and Democracy, which has other interesting projects as well. If your looking for a good blog community, I would recommend the recently revamped community at Free Speech TV, or the always provocative GNN.

Citizens want to interact online in an open participatory atmosphere. They should be able to do so unmolested by commercial interests. This is about our right to communicate, and ownership does matter.

Find more great participatory media sites HERE

Update:Google To Purchase Youtube for $1.65 Billion

Steve Anderson is the Managing Editor of COA News: Your Portal For Independent News and Current Affairs