Mergers may shrink limits of cyberspace

With deals like AOL Time Warner, critics are concerned that just a few

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Don't try to tell Carlton Jenkins the world's "old media" behemoths are about to choke off innovation and choice on the Internet by merging with the likes of America Online. He won't buy it. The California banker has staked his future on a new, independent Internet site.

Called OneNetNow, it's designed to bridge the so-called digital divide by attracting more African-Americans and Latinos to the Web. Mr. Jenkins is confident because the Internet is still a remarkably easy place to start up and become competitive. And its future is still evolving.

"You can still play," he says. "In television, the barrier to entry, buying a station, was such a large impediment that you just couldn't afford to play at a certain point."

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But with the AOL-Time Warner deal expected to trigger a rash of mergers between traditional media corporations and the new cyber-upstarts, some public advocates are sounding alarms that innovators like Jenkins could soon get squeezed out by the commercial giants altogether.

The fear is that could turn the Internet, perhaps the ultimate symbol of independent thought, into what many believe it is already becoming: a mass-marketed, digital mall - one with only six chain stores.

But while critics are concerned the mergers will limit competition and choice, no one, not even the media's harshest opponents, believes cyberspace will ever become monopolized in a traditional sense by a single entity - or even a group of corporations.

Web may prove monopoly-proof

"Under the assumption that the Internet remains unowned and kind of anarchic ... it really can't be monopolized," says David Rubin, dean of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in New York.

"But what could happen is that users could be sufficiently lazy that their behavior could be essentially circumscribed by Time Warner/AOL-type deals." How? By making it "really, really easy" to get to Time Warner and AOL content and "really, really difficult to get anywhere else," he says.

That's already happening. Some Internet service providers (ISP) make navigating out of their site onto the Web a labyrinthine chore worthy of the Greeks. And AOL's Steve Case made it clear that he'd eventually like the AOL site to become an "integrated consumer space," not a place people "go through to get to somewhere else." That's why Time Warner's content, which includes CNN, Sports Illustrated, HBO, and Warner Brothers, is so important to AOL.

That trend is what worries critics like Robert McChesney, author of "Rich Media, Poor Democracy." He says it will make it much more difficult for the Internet to fulfill the promise it once offered, which was "to spawn a commercially viable media sector to compete with the existing giants. Not to be part of them, but actually challenge them for their market, readers, viewers, and advertisers," he says. "I think the evidence is irrefutable there's no chance whatsoever of that happening now."

Lots of Internet start-ups tried, but most lost their shirts during a big shake-up in 1998 when the traditional media went online in earnest. That left only a few viable independents like the online magazine Salon.Com. But it's losing money right and left.

The problem, according to Mr. McChesney, is that the traditional media giants were too difficult to compete with.

Jenkins is determined not to repeat those failures. First, his target audience is people who haven't yet logged on.

OneNetNow also has something else that's become increasingly important to compete in the cyberworld - backers willing to invest in the "mid-seven figures" to get the site up and operating.

"We're not selling something right away. Our focus is to develop content that is relevant," says Jenkins. "We're well-positioned to meet the challenges."

Question of open access

And start-ups like Jenkins's also got a boost, indirectly, from the AOL-Time Warner merger.

Before the deal, AOL had been a leading advocate for "open access," which would ensure that cable companies that provide high-speed Internet access give customers a choice of Internet service providers. Most cable companies balked, wanting consumers to use the ISP of the company's choice.

But thanks to the deal with AOL, TimeWarner, the nation's second-largest cable operator, has come on board favoring open access - at least verbally.

"Anybody with an idea and a little money can have a future on the Internet," says Greg Simon, codirector of the openNET Coalition. "But that future will be brighter if they can get on any network, and anybody can reach them through any Internet service provider. That's why we have to have open access."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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