The Battle for the Net Frontier:
Technology and Policy in an Age of Hype and Sensationalism
Jan H. Samoriski
Assistant Professor of Communication
The University of Michigan-Dearborn
[log in to unmask]
Selected for presentation in the Communication Technology and
Policy Division of the Association for Education in Journalism
and Mass Communication Annual Convention, August 13, 1996,
The Battle for the Net Frontier:
Technology and Policy in an Age of Hype and Sensationalism
This study explores the two conflicting perceptions of
reality that appear to characterize the Internet and World Wide
Web. Through the discourse created by different industry
players, the author compares the hype and sensationalism of the
Net with its technological and policy reality. The study
concludes a perceptual gap between the two realities has resulted
in a policy paradox that threatens the way the Net is understood
The Battle for the Net Frontier:
Technology and Policy in an Age of Hype and Sensationalism
Over the past year the rapid growth of the Internet and
World Wide Web (the Net) has attracted a great deal of interest
as users, entrepreneurs, and scholars attempt to navigate and
make sense of the Net's popularity. From its beginnings as a
network used primarily by government and academia, the Net
quickly evolved into a new media phenomenon that most Americans
believe is "the wave of the future" (Miller, 1995, D1). Within
the communications industry the Net has become the center of
attention in a competitive struggle between industry players
seeking to frame the Net's future in terms that will work to
their advantage. As interest in the on-line world has grown, so
has the importance of the technological and policy issues that
flank the Net frontier.
Within the discourse there appear to be two conflicting
perceptions of the reality of the Net that frame what can be
characterized as a battle for the Net frontier. In one realm is
the popular conception of the Internet and World Wide Web fueled
by the hype and sensationalism created by the different players.
On the other is the reality of the telecommunications environment
that more accurately reflects the technical and policy attributes
of the nation's developing National Information Infrastructure
(NII). Between the two is a lively discourse that, in addition
to providing clues as to the player's agendas, is also actively
shaping the policy environment that will determine the Net's
future. The following is an exploration of that discourse aimed
at shedding light on the dynamics behind the policy process
currently shaping the Net.
This paper is divided into three main sections. Following a
brief introduction and review of regulatory theory, the first
section will demonstrate the ability of discourse to determine
policy (Streeter, 1987) and explain why the current Net discourse
may be of importance in explaining the present and future
regulatory environment of the Net. The second section will
compare the hype with the reality of the Net in the context of
the discourse of five of the communications industry's principle
players. The last section will discuss the implications of the
Regulatory Policy and the Net
When the Clinton Administration unveiled "The National
Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action," in September
1993, the Internet, as it existed at that time, was relatively
unheard of. The emergence of the term "Information Superhighway"
had little meaning because people had no idea of what the highway
was nor what it was supposed to do. The Internet became the
defacto highway and its "Information Superhighway" designation,
with the help of media hype, gained new meaning for millions of
new users who, over the next two years, helped drive the Net's
phenomenal growth. Metaphorical references to on-ramps, off-
ramps and a host of other terms quickly followed.
The Clinton Administration's Telecommunications Policy
Reform Initiative, which evolved into the Telecommunications Act
of 1996 through the legislative process, was big on rhetoric but
contained little detail when it came down to how the
Administration was going to achieve its goals of encouraging
private investment, promoting and protecting competition,
providing public access to the NII, preserving and advancing
universal access, and ensuring flexibility so that any resultant
regulatory framework would keep pace with technological and
market changes. In addition, there were few illustrations of
what the NII was going to do to help address some of the
country's pressing social problems, nor were there specific
examples of the technology at work. The Administration's
initiative described the construction of an advanced NII in
optimistic terms as something that would "help unleash an
information revolution that will change forever the way people
live, work, and interact with each other" (The National
Information Infrastructure: Agenda for Action, 1993, p.1).
Three years later the Telecommunications Act of 1996 relaxed
regulation in the telecommunications industry by encouraging
competition in broadcasting, cable, and telephone which Congress
hoped would benefit the public by producing lower prices, new
jobs and innovative services. The Act increased broadcast
ownership limits and relaxed ownership rules, extended broadcast
license terms, deregulated some CATV rates, and, perhaps most
importantly, removed barriers to allow telephone and cable
companies to provide programming and service in areas that the
law had previously kept them from entering. Other provisions of
the Telecommunications Act were add-ons that included the V-chip
to address sex and violence on television and the Communications
Decency Act to address indecency on the Internet. As a reform
package, the Telecommunications Act turned the development of the
NII over to private industry. The Administration had embarked on
a policy of unregulation in order to let the mechanisms of the
market take care of building an infrastructure to link the
Theoretical Approaches to Government Regulation
The policy literature contains numerous theories that have
been used to explain government regulation of the communications
industry from a variety of perspectives. A review of some of the
major perspectives would include Horwitz (1989), who categorized
regulatory theories into five groups: public interest theory,
regulatory failure or perverted public interest theory,
conspiracy theory, organizational behavior theory, and capitalist
state theory. Bernstein (1955) suggested that regulatory
agencies go through regulatory cycles. Kolko (1963) looked at
how conspiracy by the regulated industry played a role in the
regulatory process. Stigler (1971) proposed an economic theory
of regulation in which he argued that industries seek regulation
that is designed and operated for their benefit.
Arnall and Mead (1984) proposed three models to show how the
Federal Communications can be understood as a combination
rational actor, organization, and political actor at the same
time. Capitalist state theory attempts to explain regulatory
decision making in terms of how the state initiates policies that
sustain the capitalist system. In developing a political
perspective on communications policy and regulation, Mosco (1988)
used state theory in an attempt to come to a better understanding
of how the regulatory process occurs.
Multiple model or synthesized theories of regulatory behavior
include Krasnow and Longley's (1982) pluralist explanation of
regulatory decision making as the result of interaction in the
political environment in which multiple actors determine who gets
what out of the policy process. Dutton (1992) framed the
communications policymaking process metaphorically, comparing it
to what he described as an ecology of games. Sabatier and Pelkey
(1987) proposed a framework for explaining the regulatory
policymaking process based on advocacy coalitions. Horwitz
(1989) proposed a theory of regulation that recognized the
evolution of three different types of regulatory bodies that
corresponded to three historical periods. Similarly, Eisner
(1993) explained changes in regulatory policymaking as the result
of transitions in regulatory politics. Noll (1984) provided a
multi-disciplinary survey and synthesis of government regulatory
behavior and suggested that dissatisfaction with the performance
of a regulated industry could lead to one of four types of reform
Since there is no regulatory agency overseeing the
development of the Net, most theories that conceptualize policy
theory in the context of a regulatory agency are hard to apply.
The newness of the Net environment and the way in which the
communications industry has been unregulated makes it difficult
to place the current players in relationship to each other using
existing theories, unless it is done historically. The
regulatory landscape that was created by the Telecommunications
Act of 1996 is unique in that it presents a combination of
players, technology, and opportunity that has never existed
before. It is also difficult to locate the role of government
because instead of regulating, the government have removed
regulatory barriers. Economically, all the industries have large
stakes in the outcome of policy decisions. Some may have more
clout than others, however, how that influence plays out in an
arena that was designed to be competitive through deregulation
remains to be determined. Theories that suggest regulatory
epochs or regimes are useful in explaining regulatory behavior,
but more so in retrospect.
Mapping the different interests requires an examination of
where the industries are positioned and what they are saying. Of
particular utility in explaining the current stage of the Net's
development are theories that examine the regulatory environment
in terms of discourse. Examining discourse in this analysis is
especially useful because of the appearance of a discourse that
does not appear to represent the reality it is supposed to
Streeter (1987) illustrated how discourse defines policy.
In the case of cable television, Streeter explained how the way
in which cable television was discussed ultimately became the way
it was understood and regulated. By studying the various
discourses that define how a technology is presented and
perceived, Streeter said media scholars can gain insight into the
policy process, which is the focus of this study.
Streeter argued that from 1966 to 1970, the dialogue
associated with cable television affected developments in media
policy. As a result, a whole new conceptualization of the
industry was born, which in turn was reflected in the way policy
makers regarded other new media technologies. Streeter said the
discourse made a noticeable difference in the growth and
development of cable television. One result of the discourse was
the creation of the appearance of consensus where there was none.
Although different groups had separate, and sometimes conflicting
interests when it came to what they expected from the policy
process, no one group dominated the result. Compromise between
the competing interests created a sense of urgency about the
cable issue. In the end, the discourse did not at all describe
the cable institution that it was supposed to depict, it simply
drew attention to it.
At the heart of the "cable fable," as Streeter referred to
it, was the portrayal of cable television (Streeter, 1987, p.
174). Cable television, if allowed to develop, was described as
a technological panacea whose benefits would reach into homes
from coast to coast. The CATV discourse found its way into
studies and reports of the era under a variety of themes which
painted a picture of cable as an innovative, new technology with
an identity of its own. Cable's real personality was disguised
behind a facade of what Streeter described as a "technological
revolution" (Streeter, 1987, p. 178) that did not include cable
television's larger social context. Streeter illustrated how
the discourse created gaps in the cable fable and the impression
that CATV would promote pluralism and empower those who had
fallen by the wayside in a cold, bureaucratic state.
Connecting Discourse and Policy
The connection between discourse and policy is illustrated
by the legislative response to what the public perceived as a
serious social problem with the exposure of children to sexual
and violent material on television, and through the availability
of pornography on the Internet and World Wide Web. Some studies
blame the decay of morality in society and increases in crime on
sex and violence in the media, particularly when it comes to
children and TV violence (Mortimer, 1994). Research undertaken
because of the emergence of a public discourse on the issue of
sex and violence on television helped focus attention on a
situation that television itself was reluctant to cover. When
the discourse became so loud that it could no longer be ignored,
Congress, despite its need to rely on the media to get re-
elected, had to take notice.
In reacting to public sentiment about sex and violence on
television, Congress drafted the V-chip provision into the
Telecommunications Act of 1996, citing a number of factors
legislators said contributed to the problem. Among the factors
were research findings that supported Congressional beliefs that
television did influence the behavior of children because of its
pervasiveness in society and that the influence, particularly
when it came to violent behavior, caused children to believe that
violent behavior was acceptable. The same applied, said
Congress, to the casual treatment of sexual material on
television (Telecommunications Act of 1996, Subtitle B, Section
In the case of pornography and the Internet, the discourse
intensified when Time magazine published a cover story about the
popularity of Cyberporn, which the story said had become
"pervasive and surprisingly perverse" on the Internet (Elmer-
Dewitt, 1995a, p. 38). The story, based on information
attributed to research conducted at Carnegie Mellon University
entitled, "Marketing Pornography on the Information
Superhighway," painted what critics said was an exaggerated
picture of pornography and the Net (Elmer-Dewitt, 1995b). Among
the study's findings were claims that on-line porn had become
very popular, profitable and that porn could be found practically
everywhere on the Net. Controversy quickly enveloped the
study when critics expressed concern over the source of some of
the statistics the study used, which were said to be misleading.
Questions about the credibility of the study's lead researcher,
Carnegie Mellon undergraduate Marty Rimm, surfaced when damaging
evidence came to light about the integrity of Rimm's past writing
projects. The debate became highly charged on and off the
Internet, ending up in what the magazine later termed a "full-
blown and highly political conflagration" (Elmer-Dewitt, 1995a,
p. 57). Time published an article three weeks later explaining
the controversy over its initial cover story, but admitted no
fault for neglecting to check the accuracy of the research before
The implications of the Time Cyberporn piece are clear in
that the story helped focus attention on the Internet despite the
story's questionable validity. Six months later the Computer
Decency Act and V-chip legislation became law. Throughout the
period there were two realities. One reflected the hype and
sensationalism that surrounded pornography and the Internet in,
for example, the Carnegie Mellon finding that 83.5% of Usenet
newsgroups are pornographic. The reality was much smaller.
Critics said the figure was less than one half of 1% (Elmer-
DeWitt, 1995a, p. 57). Yet Congress, the public and other media
outlets that took a cue from the Time cover story helped draw
attention to the Cyberporn issue. Other media accounts followed.
The discourse, although it was less than accurate, had an
influence on the legislative response.
Today's Net is in many ways similar to the cable industry
between 1966-1970. The Net is a new media technology that is not
well understood in a new technological and policy environment
that most people, including those in government and industry,
seem to know little about. Like the Blue Sky era of the cable
industry, there is a lot of hype behind the Net, which makes an
examination of the Net discourse a good place to start a search
for clues as to what lies ahead. In the next section, five of
the principal players in the battle for the Net frontier will be
discussed. These will include, in order, the conventional print
and broadcast media followed by the cable television industry,
the telephone industry and, finally, the computer industry. In
each case the popular perception created by the discourse will be
compared with the reality.
The Discourse of the Net
The Print & Broadcast Media
Not everyone in the media has much understanding of what it
[Internet mania] means, but there is a strong feeling that
it means something. Since the media hate to think of
themselves as behind the times, newspaper pages and
television hours are full of the Internet. The mere word is
enough to guarantee space (Gordon, 1995).
The coverage that the Internet has received in the media
over the past year or two has been remarkable. Internet-related
stories have received high profile coverage, particularly when
the subject involves computer crime or pornography. From the
case of University of Michigan undergrad Jake Baker who was
charged with publishing a violent sex fantasy on the Internet, to
the fanfare surrounding Microsoft's release of Windows 95, the
media has taken a special interest in Net topics. The business
pages now profile Internet-related companies such as Netscape and
market analysts watch the progress of communications stocks with
great interest. Not surprisingly, advertising has followed
Internet mania. Ads for computers, modems, software and Internet
Access Providers (IAP) once rare in the mainstream media are now
Many newspapers have created Web pages to complement their
daily editions, devoted space to regular columns and developed
listings of hot Web sites. E-mail addresses have appeared
alongside regular addresses and fax and telephone numbers where
readers can send letters to the editor. USA Today conferred
status on the Internet when it devoted an entire section to it
complete with full page advertising (Promise of the Internet,
Television coverage of the Net has been similarly inspired.
In addition to high profile stories about computer crime and
pornography, the Internet feature has also become popular.
Attracted to the unusual or bazaar, reporters have found that Net
stories are easily adapted to the minute-and-a-half packaging
constraints of a newscast. Stories about unusual Web pages, on-
line romances or new applications of Internet technology to, for
example, education, are visual, interesting, and most
importantly, cute. Full-length television programs such as
Cyberlife, Next Step and C/Net devote themselves to computers,
the Net and new technology (TVWeek, 1996). The Networks have
created Web pages to promote their schedules, especially during
ratings sweeps (Stanley, 1995). Many radio and television
stations have established a presence on the Net to offer
additional information about programming, sports scores, weather
forecasts and even job listings (www.wdiv.com, 1996).
Stories about the coming of Desktop Broadcasting (Atwood,
1996), Television on the Net (Traiman, 1996), and Internet Radio
Broadcasting (Block, 1996), backed by industry-sponsored research
promise to change the broadcast industry. The discourse is
upbeat and optimistic as if written by public relations
consultants, rather than reporters. Desktop broadcasting, for
example, is "poised to have a major impact on the way we see and
hear radio and TV in the near future" (Atwood, 1996, p. 79).
While the Internet hype may seem the heaviest on the
established print and broadcast mediums, both have, potentially,
the most to lose in the battle for the Net frontier. Existing
media have historically done poorly when new technologies have
appeared. Such was the case when radio came into a world
dominated by newspapers. Similarly, television eclipsed radio.
Later, the cable industry threatened the television industry.
Both the television and newspaper industries are in the midst of
declines. In the case of television, the Network share of the
viewing audience has fallen to all-time regular season lows
(McClellan, 1995). A corresponding drop has occurred in
television station profits.
The future of the television industry has been placed in
further jeopardy by doubts about high-definition television. The
transition to digital television presents more than technical
problems for many financially strapped stations faced with the
task of making the conversion. In addition to the expensive
proposition of having to digitally upgrade everything in the
broadcast chain from cameras to transmitters, broadcasters are
caught in a policy battle with Congress. Congressional proposals
to auction spectrum to broadcasters while stations make the
transition to digital television have met with strong opposition.
Broadcasters say they cannot afford to buy digital spectrum and
continue to provide free television (Stern, 1996a).
Newspapers have seen a long-term decline in circulation
figures, especially within the younger demographic groups that
newspapers will need in the years ahead to shore up readership
(Garneau, 1994). Already troubled by rising production costs,
particularly the price of newsprint, the newspaper is also
squeezed, like its media counterparts are, in an advertising
climate where more advertising outlets are competing for a
limited number of advertising dollars. In a digital world,
newspapers fear "being stuck on Main Street when the information
superhighway roars through town" (Garneau, 1994, p.11).
Of the media that have had to face new technologies, the
newspaper industry has particular reason to be gun shy about the
Internet. During the 1980's, a number of newspaper chains,
including Knight-Ridder and Times-Mirror, invested millions of
dollars into the development of videotext (Rogers, 1986). The
newspaper industry, with the resources already in place to
provide videotext programming, thought that readers would readily
adapt to a new delivery system. For a variety of reasons
videotext failed and the mistake cost the industry dearly.
This year "marks another revolutionary year in cable's
history," [National Cable Television President] Anstrom
said, adding that the [Telecommunications] act "has
unleashed powerful new competitive forces that will bring
significant changes to the way we live, the way we work and
the way we learn" (Littleton, 1996).
The cable television industry's enthusiasm for the Net is
glowing. With coaxial cable linking nearly the entire country,
the cable industry sees itself as a front runner in the battle to
become the logical choice to provide broadband service to
millions of present and potential customers. In its head-to-head
competition with the broadcast industry for viewers, cable has
done very well. For years cable has been steadily gaining ground
on the commercial television network's share of the viewing
audience. By 1997, one study predicts that more people will be
watching cable than ABC, NBC and CBS combined on a given evening
At the heart of the cable industry's optimism is the two-way
cable modem, a set-top device that will facilitate Internet
connections in the 10 to 30 megabit-per-second range, dwarfing
the 28.8 kilobit speed of most phone-based modems (Brown &
Tedesco, 1996). In addition to regular cable television which
continues to expand with the addition of dozens of new cable
networks, the cable industry has its sights set on delivering
digital TV and telephony.
The passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, besides
removing barriers to the cable industry's entry into the
telephone business, also represents a reprieve from the seemingly
haphazard way that the industry was regulated under reform
legislation in 1984 and 1992. Seizing the opportunity to improve
its image and reach out and tap additional markets, the industry
has invested billions of dollars into new technology, including
fiber-enhanced delivery systems (Brown, 1996). The industry has
also worked to improve service through advertising and service
guarantees, promising to, among other things, "reinvent" cable
The reality is that there are technical problems with two-
way cable modems, the centerpiece of the cable industry's Net
plan. Because cable coax was designed to handle video in one
direction, the lines are subject to electronic interference when
they are used to transmit in the other direction from signals
created by radios, dryers, and even Christmas tree lights
(Hutheesing, 1996). Assuming the interference can be solved, a
more serious interface problem remains.
Unlike telephone lines, cable lines are shared, in some
cases by hundreds of homes. As long as only a limited number of
Net users are using the cable to send and retrieve data, the
system works fine because there is still plenty of bandwidth left
for the cable television signals. But as use goes up, bandwidth
goes down and data transmission speeds drop significantly.
Engineers are working on new methods for compressing data, but
industry observers say it will be some time before the technology
reaches the point where it will overcome the current limitations.
Unfortunately, the cable industry has made promises that it
suddenly finds it is having a tough time living up to (Brown &
Cable modem standards had yet to be established by late
spring 1996, interactive television was being described as a
technology without a business, and two-way capacity--the ability
to send and receive data at full speed in both directions--had
only reached 20% (Brown & Tedesco, 1996). The costs associated
with converting existing cable to handle the wide bandwidths
required for television and data transmission are estimated to be
as high as $1,000 per cable household. For large cable operators
like Tele-Communications, Inc., with millions of subscribers, the
cost will run into billions of dollars (Hutheesing, 1996).
Within the industry, concern about promise vs. performance is
also mounting (Brown & Tedesco, 1996).
Once the cable industry overcomes the technical problems
associated with two-way cable modems, it still has to contend
with competition from direct broadcast satellite (DBS). Direct-
to-home satellite TV system sales were up 41% in 1995 (Satellite
systems soar, 1996), much higher than anyone expected. DBS has
made inroads into the cable industry's customer base with two
services, USSB and Direct TV, already delivering digital audio
and video to subscribers.
The Telephone Industry
The Telecommunications Act of 1996, much like it removed
regulatory barriers in the cable industry so cable companies
could provide telephone service, removed barriers in the
telephone industry which allow telephone companies (telcos) to
provide video programming in their own service areas. Under the
new law telcos can choose to be regulated as a cable system, a
common carrier or a newly created open video system. In effect,
the law places telephone companies under some of the same rules
that cable systems must follow.
The telephone industry's reply to the cable modem is ADSL
(asymmetrical digital subscriber line) and ISDN (integrated
services digital network), engineering terms for technology
capable of delivering high-speed data and video over conventional
telephone lines. The telephone industry has an advantage over
the cable industry when it comes to promising and delivering high
speed Internet access to its customers.
The telephone system, unlike the cable system, is a
switched system. Simply explained, a switched system allows the
telephone company to route video, like it does phone calls,
thereby creating what the industry analogously calls "video
dialtone" (VDT). With video dialtone, customers will be able to
dial-up video and receive hundreds of digital TV channels in
addition to telephone and computer services (Phone Home, 1996).
The infrastructure of the telephone system is also highly
developed. Whereas only about three-quarters of those who have
cable available to them subscribe, nearly everyone has telephone
service. While the transmission rates currently offered by
telephone technology are slower than what cable modems can
provide, the rates are guaranteed (Tedesco, 1996). Unlike cable,
there's no shared use of cable channels which slows down
To promote Internet access, the telephone industry, led by
communications giant AT&T, has been in the middle of what
industry analysts have called an "Internet war" to sign-up
customers for Internet service (Kim, 1996a, D-1). Designed to
"rock the Internet ecosystem" (Kim, 1996a, p. D-1), AT&T rolled-
out an extensive advertising campaign to associate itself with
the Internet. To make the association, AT&T has created images
of the communications future and then plugged itself in as a
major player, something the communications company has done
impressively in the past. The 1993 AT&T promotion video,
"Connections: AT&T's Vision of the Future" is an example
AT&T's "Connections" is a 12-minute profile of the
communications future that highlights the role that AT&T
technology will play in facilitating understanding by helping to
provide solutions to a number of issues facing a community of the
future. The story is based on a plot that revolves around the
marriage of a cross-cultural couple, interwoven with a series of
complications that include urban decay, politics, medicine and
education. The video depicts a perfect world mediated by AT&T
brand services that include intelligent agents on flat video
screens and characters with futuristic personal communications
assistants (none of which currently exist) to create a reality
that is both slick and believable. The AT&T logo is prominently
displayed on the technology throughout the video, as if AT&T had
somehow managed to secure a monopoly on the future. Although,
"Connections" is fiction, the discourse it creates is real.
As with the other industries, the discourse being generated
by the telephone industry is intense, but most of it is being
directed at competition within the industry. Fierce competition
in the long distance telephone market has created a war not
unlike the one that characterizes the battle for Internet
business. Some analysts expect that giant AT&T will, "by and
large" become the largest Internet-access provider in the U.S.
within a few years (Mamera, 1996, B-1). As part of it's effort
to succeed, AT&T has taken a special interest in education. The
company says it will invest nearly $150 million over the next
five years to provide Internet access to all of the nation's 110-
thousand schools (Maney, 1995). AT&T, like other communications-
related companies, knows that by getting students used to
Internet technology now they virtually assure themselves a place
in the discourse tomorrow. In the meantime, the discourse fuels
the hype of the Net.
The Computer Industry
The computer industry, combined here with the software
industry and the on-line service industry, has, perhaps by
design, done a great deal to contribute to the hype of the Net.
Here, more than in any of the other industries discussed thus
far, the hype behind the Net translates into big business.
It is difficult to discuss the computer industry without
mentioning Microsoft and software czar Bill Gates. Gates
dominates a large share of the software market with Microsoft
products such as Windows 95, whose summer 1995 release was
announced with considerable fanfare and became a media event.
Gates's efforts to set the agenda in the computer industry are
well known. In The Road Ahead, Gates predicts that electronic
marketplaces, wallet-size personal computers and telecommuting
will be common in the future (Jones, 1995). By attracting so
much public attention, Gates has become "the prophet of the
social change that technology can deliver," thereby strengthening
Microsoft's position as a leader in the software industry (Rock, 1996).
What Microsoft has done for the software industry, Intel has
done for the personal computer industry. The microchip maker
that produces the engine that drives most home Pcs has been so
successful in continually improving processor speeds that in
order to stay up with technology, PC owners have to buy a new
computer nearly every year. Intel keeps its consumer profile
high through advertising. PC makers like Apple, Compaq and
others promote the Net through competitive efforts to boost
Consumers with computers and software created a market for
the on-line services. The on-line industry kindled and then fed
Internet frenzy by offering computer owners free software and
trial time to check out their rapidly expanding services.
America On-line, CompuServe, Prodigy and others became part of
the Net lexicon and helped create the impression that everyone
had a computer and was on-line, a perception that has hooked
investors on Internet stocks (Kim, 1996b).
The reality of the on-line world is reflected in a Fall 1995
survey that found only about 11 percent of the combined
population of adults in the United States and Canada had used the
Internet in the previous three months (Lewis, 1995). While the
numbers of on-line users were increasing at a steady rate, the
same figures showed that most users were accessing the Net from
work, not home. Only about one-third of U.S. homes have
computers, which are required for home Net access. A slowing in
the growth of U.S. home PC sales and projections of a potential
decline (Schmit, 1996), including profit losses by Apple Computer
(Kim & Schmit, 1996), all suggest that the Cyberspace express may
be running out of steam. A 1995 survey by International Data
Corporation found that of those who do not currently have a PC at
home and did not plan to buy one, over half said they have no
need for one. Over a quarter said they could not afford a PC
(Schmit, 1996). Yet the optimistic forecasts continue.
Feeding the hype are projections like those by Forrester
Research that predict on-line services will peak sometime in 1998
with 15.8 million subscribers. The number of subscribers
obtaining direct access to the Net is also expected to increase
from the current five-million to around 32-million (Snider,
1996). Similar projections that predict the explosive growth of
the Net continue to receive widespread media attention. Despite
the inexact science of forecasting (Klopfenstein, 1989) and a
track record that shows technological "wonders" are commonly
overvaluated, assumptions continue to drive many Net predictions.
A remarkably typical mistake made by technological forecasts
assumes a strong upward growth curve (Schnaars, 1989), much like
the one that many forecasters claim characterizes the growth of
the Internet and World Wide Web.
Two conflicting realities of the Net are evident in the
industries that have been discussed. One reflects the perception
of reality created and perpetuated by each industry. The other
is based on the reality of the technological and policy
environment. Between the two realities there is a perceptual
Despite tough times in the newspaper and television
industries, both mediums have devoted considerable coverage to
the Net frenzy that is poised to undermine their audiences. The
cable TV industry is caught in a promise vs. performance dilemma
in its efforts to develop the two-way cable modem and "reinvent"
cable. The telephone industry, in addition to being in the midst
of a high profile "Internet War," has created exotic images of a
future that does not yet exist. The computer industry continues
to promote the impression that everyone is going on-line, while
computer sales lag. The result is a discourse that does not
accurately represent the Net frontier it is supposed to describe.
There are some implications in the resulting policy paradox.
One concern is overreaction. Congressional overreaction to
Cyberporn in the passage of the Communications Decency Act is an
example of how discourse can effect legislation. A subsequent
ruling by a panel of federal judges barring enforcement of the
Act (Ivey, 1996) attests to the questionable wisdom of
Congressional attempts to impose censorship on Net users through
Outright misregulation of the Net is another concern. The
example provided by cable television in the alternate regulation
and deregulation of the cable industry illustrates the degree to
which the growth of cable was misguided by delusions about what
cable was. The discourse generated by the players in the battle
for the Net frontier is similarly producing mixed signals.
Combined with the conspicuous absence of public input into the
discourse, there is a real danger in the Net being portrayed as
something other than it is and, consequently, misregulated.
Widespread confusion as to what the Net is only complicates a
picture that is still too fuzzy to see clearly. Without clear
definition, manipulation comes easy.
The removal of regulatory barriers and the creation of a
competitive environment, while allowing market forces to compete,
has at the same time fostered the creation of a false reality.
The Net, rather than being pulled by consumer demand, is being
driven by industry and media hype. In an effort to generate
demand for their products and services, the different players
have produced a self-interested discourse that is aimed more at
garnering market share than it is at serving the public. If Net
policy follows the hype rather than the reality, the future of
the Net is in jeopardy. Rather than benefiting the public, the
Net will only serve the commercial interests of its masters.
Instead of a public discourse guided by reasoned analysis and
debate, the Net frontier more closely resembles a three-ringed
circus where the player with the most bizarre act is attracting
the most attention.
Changing the way the Net is discussed, understood and
regulated will require shattering the industry-created myths that
currently pervade the Net. To realize the Net's full democratic
potential, the public will have to become more active in the
discourse. Otherwise, the public will become one of the first
casualties in the battle for the Net frontier.
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