The Internet Land Grab: History Repeats Itself

Presenting businessmen and legislators with a new medium is like presenting 19th century Americans with a new territory, with fertile land thought to contain oil or gold, inhabited only by a few inconvenient Indians. This parallel is so obvious that it has been beaten to death as a metaphor in recent writing about the Internet. Here, for example, are Wired writer David Kline and investment banker Daniel Burstein in their book, Road Warriors:

Can the Internet's wild frontier be tamed and made 'safe' for Big Business?...[I]n between those eastern farms and the hills of California there lies a long, long stretch of 'Indian country'.

Internet free speech proponents were so shocked when the Communications Decency Act apparently came at them out of the blue, that few have yet placed it in context. One theory, paranoid but probably true, is that the CDA is only the scouting party for an invasion force, the usual army of businessmen looking to dominate a new medium. After all, the CDA was a small part of a giant telecommunications reform act, which devoted most of its attention not to online indecency but to the future demographics of the Information Superhighway. Knocking down regulatory barriers, the bill permits and encourages phone and cable companies to compete with each other, while existing broadcasters, software giants, ISP's, online services and content providers compete to grab (or preserve) a piece of the action. A bill which chills small, independent information providers and distributors, by placing complex and frightening criminal liabilities on them, merely helps shovel control of the I-way to the large competitors who can afford squads of attorneys.

Does this sound bizarre and conspiratorial? It has happened before. In the late '20's, a court's holding that the government could not legally deny a broadcast license resulted in chaos on the radio airwaves as stations competed to grab frequencies on the spectrum and to drown each other out. Congress stepped in and created the Federal Radio Commission, which under a regulation called "General Order 40" charged itself with restoring order to the airwaves. All existing broadcasters were required to apply for license renewals every three months and the FRC set itself to the task of relentlessly squeezing out all the nonprofit stations, to clear the airwaves for the commercial networks.

Radio historian Robert W. McChesney writes:

[T]he FRC would have the various applicants for a particular frequency ultimately share its usage (unless there was a successful commercial broadcaster already in place, in which case its status was effectively unchallengeable) and allocate the majority of the hours to the station it deemed most worthy. In the long run, the station accorded the fewest hours on a shared channel often found it very difficult to stay on the air.

The FRC, incredibly, was interpreting the "public interest, convenience, or necessity" language of the statute that created it, to mandate the destruction of nonprofit broadcasters. Ironically, when the radio act was passed in 1927, an amendment to require a set-aside of frequencies for nonprofit stations had been defeated on the grounds that protection of the nonprofits was already implicit in the public interest language of the act.

Although the FRC, in its enforcement actions under General Order 40, made passing mention that the public interest required the "winning" stations to have high quality transmitters and financial stability, in some cases the nonprofits it destroyed were bigger and stronger than the upstart commercial stations which replaced them.

The FRC distinguished between "general public service stations" and "propaganda stations". Proving Humpty Dumpty's dictum that "words mean whatever I want them to", "public service stations" was the FRC's phrase for the commercial, advertising-supported stations, while the nonprofits, in many cases supported by universities, labor unions and religious organizations, were the "propaganda stations." Said the FRC:

There is not room in the broadcast band for every school of thought, religious, political, social and economic, each to have its separate broadcasting station...

In 1927, CBS and NBC owned a combined 6.4% of all radio stations; after four years of General Order 40, they owned 30%. Fifty-eight of the sixty-two stations with wattage of more than 5,000 had network affiliation.

Who got squeezed out? The successful and popular "Voice of Labor" in Chicago, WCFL, was one of the most prominent victims. Signalled out in the FRC's third annual report as a "propaganda station", WCFL was forced to share its frequency with a commercial station, then reduced to 1,000 watts power, then forbidden to broadcast after 8 p.m.

A WCFL spokesman turned to the land-grab metaphor when he wrote to Congress in 1929:

A few squatters have set up their tents, turned a few furrows, and now ask the nation to confirm in them title to a continent...What do they care for the 'public interest, necessity and convenience'? What they want is to make money, to acquire power and to control in their interest this unparalleled new means to communication.

Another well-known victim of the FRC was the Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle, an order of 93 priests based in New York City, who operated station WLWL. When they went on the air in 1925, it was one of the 20 most powerful stations in the country, with a 5,000 watt transmitter. WLWL, like WCFL considered a "propaganda station" by the FRC, was shifted from frequency to frequency, where it was forced to share time with other stations, until it finally was reduced to 2 broadcast hours daily, while the originally much smaller WMCA used the balance of the broadcast day. WMCA had begun with one-tenth the power of WLWL's transmitter. By 1934, after some years of the FRC's kind ministrations, WMCA was worth $4 million, while WLWL's assets were worth about $5,000.00. The priests wondered how the FRC could decide that "those who are working for the public welfare are pursuing special interests and that the gentlemen who are working for their own pockets are not."

The FRC even drove most college stations off the air, in favor of commercial competitors. The director of the University of Arkansas station, which went out of business soon after, said:

The Commission may boast that it has never cut an educational station off the air. It merely cuts off our head, our arms and our legs, and then allows us to die a natural death.

Yes, its happening again. As before, the small players--your neighborhood Web hosting company, small ISP, nonprofit Webzine publisher-- have proved the efficacy of the concept. As Kline and Burstein say, "[C]yberspace may eventually turn out to be the greatest new market opportunity in history..." Now, along come the big boys, saying, "Thanks--we'll take over now."