We are at an historic cross-roads in news and journalism. The internet and digital media have provided us with a powerful new platform that allows many more people than ever before to participate. Have we finally achieved Milton's long-elusive ideal? There is at least the potential to do so.
The last time such an oppor-tunity arose was a couple of hundred years ago, and that case provides a cautionary tale. In the early 19th century, steam power and new printing technology made newspaper production speedy, efficient and cheap. Many new publications appeared and the `penny press' flourished in Britain and America, bringing news and information to the masses.
But the spell of openness ground to a halt because of the entrance of commercialism. As the British academics James Curran and Jean Seaton point out, many newspaper readers were affluent and made a ready target for people wanting to sell goods and services. Publications sold advertising space and were able to reduce their cover charges.
By 1850, the papers whose readers were not attractive to advertisers - the working class press - had all but disappeared because they were expensive compared with the others. As time went on, printing technology became ever more sophisticated and costly, and advertising more lucrative. Eventually, freedom of the press was only guaranteed, as the American commentator A.J. Liebling put it, to those who owned one.
Developments in the 20th century only entrenched this position. Broadcasting was even more exclusive than publishing, not to mention influential, and governments often took the lead. Jobs for journalists were very few and highly competitive. For those without the right background or luck to get a job the only career was in small magazines. Where the news was concerned, the average person had no chance of being any more than a consumer. Even a letter to the editor was unlikely to be published.
The internet and digitisation has turned this established system on its head. Now access is cheap and easy not only for those seeking information but for those producing it as well. It provides an open platform for all publishers, from big ones like governments and multinational conglomerates to small ones such as interest groups and school children.
Emergence of Internet
Another British researcher, Brian Winston, says that the success of a new media technology depends on the“accelerator”of social necessity and “brakes”that can stop it going mainstream. The classic example is the Beta video format: Beta tapes weren't long enough to store full-length feature films, so film libraries used the longer VHS tapes, and this format consequently became the retail standard despite its technical inferiority.
The internet was subject to both, but, unlike earlier technologies, it developed apart from commer-cialism and consumer demand. It emerged from post-World War 2 US military research into a means of communication that would survive a nuclear attack. Although academia became involved, its military use dominated through the Cold War period. It wasn't until the late 1970s that the door opened a crack to allow Compuserve and American Online in.
In 1992 Tim Berners-Lee of the CERN particle physics lab in Geneva unleashed the world wide web, a system of storing information where others could find it and read it. This made the internet much more easily accessible, though again it was not designed as a commercial prospect. That's not to say that business wasn't involved: telephone companies provided the wires and private enterprise produced the necessary browsers, software and hardware.
Yet by the late 1990s it did seem as if commercial interests might take over. By that time investors were plying“internet start-ups”- a term that has already become history - with large amounts of money on the basis of very little research, or even thought. They were looking to history for the precedent. Many of those who had got in first with earlier technologies - newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries, cable in the 1850s, radio in the 1920s, television in the 1950s - remained at the top.
Winston, writing in 1998, was pessimistic:“the Information Highway will transform itself... into the Information Toll Road” he said. Then in 2000 the dot.com bust happened. It was predictable. Mak-ing money out of the internet was difficult because of the great diversity of information sources. Nonetheless many had had high hopes and now lost money and jobs.
It was in fact a blessing in disguise because it preserved the openness of the internet. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which tracks telecommunication developments, estimates that the number of internet users in the world in 2002 stood at 580 million, an increase of 13 and a half per cent on the 502 million users in 2001, and predicted a rise of 15 per cent to 665 million in 2003.
Boosts and Control
The new users are coming from a wider variety of backgrounds. Only three years ago just under two-thirds of enquiries to the search engine Google were in English while last year the figure was around half; Japanese was the third most popular language and Chinese the sixth. There is also more and more information to look at: Google claims to have indexed more than 8,000 million web pages. Indeed, Google itself has been one of the enabling factors of the web. Anyone who sets up a website can be located through it.
Another boost to the internet came from telecommunications deregulation. Competition has lowered the cost of access and increased choice of provider. The laying of half a dozen submarine cables in East Asia has produced a bandwidth glut in the region and there are now hundreds of ISPs in territories able to use the cables -Japan has thousands. South Korea leads the world in broadband, with a majority of households connected, and Hong Kong is close behind.
There are still problems for the small web operator. Big org-anisations have the money to produce sophisticated websites and advertise them. Yet they are more likely to gain the attention of hackers, though they have more resources to counter attacks. Then there is the difficulty of proving that your website is reliable, much more of a struggle for small concerns than large ones.
The very biggest operators of all are also able to patrol the internet. The US and its allies use the Echelon intelligence gathering network to listen in electronic communications in the name of the war on terrorism. The Chinese government has filtering technology that stops messages that refer to the Falun Gong and other illegal matters and prevents people reaching websites such as the BBC's.
These are matters that concern the wider public and need serious consideration, because they will not go away. However, there is much good news.
Many governments want to be on the cutting edge of technology and encourage the internet, even if they try to limit it. The Malaysian government, which had decided in the 1990s to make itself a world leader in technology, resorted to hacking the opposition websites set up to support former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim after his arrest in 1998. There was no move to outlaw them, and even today Malaysiakini, an web publication, remains a thorn in the government's side.
Control is possible but only to a limited extent. China has jailed 36 people for putting up anti-government websites, but its official internet site (http://www.cnnic.net.cn/html/Dir/2005/01/21/2755.htm) reports that 94 million Chinese people were using the internet at the end of 2004, up nearly 20 per cent on a year before. The number of arrests is proportionately very low, and many web users stay one step ahead of the watchers.
In almost every country of the world (North Korea being the main exception), more and more people are voicing their views where once only the professionals could. OhmyNews.com, set up in South Korea in 2000, pioneered the concept of“anyone can be a journalist”. The website is reported to have had 10,000 bylines besides those of its three dozen permanent staff. Although South Koreans say that the site is a little old hat now, it was the first to show it could be done.
Bloggers have added another dimension to the media. In the US, these internet diarists, who spend their days hunting round the web for information, are beating the established media to stories - and calling them to account when they find inaccuracies or bias.
The web is ideal for alternative views. One of the best known is Indymedia, which was set up and is still run by groups involved in the anti-World Trade Organisation rallies in Seattle in 1999. It says it provides space for“radical, accurate, and passionate tellings of the truth”. It goes on: “We work out of a love and inspiration for people who continue to work for a better world, despite corporate media's distortions and unwillingness to cover the efforts to free humanity” (http://www.indymedia.org/en/static/about.shtml).
The web and digitisation are changing news and information distribution in a much more radical way than any earlier media technology. Governments use the internet for their own publicity purposes and they use surveillance tools too, but they cannot dominate it. Big business has limited interest because of the difficulty of making enough money from it. The web has been left wide open to the small user and it looks as if it is going to stay that way if current trends persist. Milton would be very pleased.