Consider, for example, ICTV, a Silicon Valley company that makes software for digital set-top boxes. In courting cable company customers, ICTV enticingly extends the walled garden metaphor to include “walled jungles” and “fenced prairies.” These virtual gated communities, it un-abashedly states, will reach “beyond a proprietary network to content partners on the Web, while circumscribing access to a defined range of approved Web pages.”A competing firm, Transcast, promises to create a “seamless consumer experience,” in which “each component is branded with the partner’s logo and identity, enabling the partner to promote their brand for the duration of the user’s Internet experience.” More brazen still is Cisco Systems (the largest supplier of networking hardware and software), which boasts of technology that will allow network operators to create “captive portals.” These will give a cable system owner “the ability to advertise services, build its brand, and own the user experience.” Not to be outdone is mighty Microsoft itself, which gets straight to the heart of the brave new online world. Promising full “walled garden support” with its new TV Server platform, Bill Gates’s ever-ambitious enterprise promotes the possibilities of “whitelists, blacklists, and auto-generated cookies,” the means, presumably, of determining who gets to see which programming, and under what terms.
For millions of households, therefore, the World Wide Web will be neither worldly nor wide. The real danger, of course, is that the online marketplace of ideas under cable’s control will become as encumbered with gatekeepers and tollbooths as the world of cable has become. If the Internet follows that sorrowful path, what was once a vast library of information on the Web-good, bad and indifferent, certainly, but also diverse and democratic-will begin to resemble the orderly, limited shelves of a chain bookstore. Bestsellers will abound (especially those with corporate ties to the media conglomerates), but alternative and independent voices may find themselves pushed so far to the margins that we’ll lose sight of them altogether.
That’s just too high a price to pay for the speed and simplicity of what amounts to little more than Internet Lite. In the interests of our democracy, broadband cable companies must be held to a higher standard than that-and the carefully constructed safeguards that preside over the AOL-Time Warner merger should be applied across the board to every cable system that offers telecommunications services.