Global media giants are lobbying for the most sinister privatisation
by Jeremy Rifkin
The Guardian, Saturday April 28, 2001
Question: what is the single most valuable piece of property
worth owning at the dawn of the information age? Answer: the radio
frequencies - the electromagnetic spectrum - over which an increasing
amount of communication and commercial activity will be broadcast
in the era of wireless communications. Our PCs, palm pilots, wireless
internet, cellular phones, pagers, radios and television all rely
on the radio frequencies of the spectrum to send and receive messages,
pictures, audio, data, etc.
Most of us never give the spectrum a passing thought. We regard
it, more or less, like the oxygen we breathe, as a free good.
In reality, the spectrum is treated as a `commons' and is controlled
and administered by governments who, in turn, license the various
radio frequencies to commercial and other institutions for broadcast.
In other words, in every country the electromagnetic system is
owned by the government on behalf of the people.
But now powerful commercial media are seeking to gain total
control over the airwaves. Imagine a world in which a handful
of global media conglomerates like Vivendi, Sony, BskyB, Disney,
and News Corporation own literally all the airwaves all over the
planet and trade them back and forth as `private electronic real
estate'. A strategy is beginning to unfold in Washington DC to
make that happen.
On February 7, 37 leading US economists signed a joint letter
asking the federal communications commission (FCC) to allow broadcasters
to lease spectrum they currently license from the government in
secondary markets. The letter, which went virtually unnoticed
by the general public, is the opening salvo in a radical plan
to wrest control of the entire spectrum from governments around
the world, and make the radio frequencies a private preserve of
global media giants. If they succeed, the nation state will have
lost one of its last remaining vestiges of real power - the ability
to regulate access to broadcast communications within its own
This story starts several years ago, when the Progress and
Freedom Foundation, a conservative thinktank in Washington with
close ties to Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives,
published The Telecom Revolution: An American Opportunity. The
report's authors called for the conversion of the electromagnetic
spectrum to private property. Under the plan, broadcasters holding
existing licences would be granted title to the spectrum they
currently used and would be able to use, develop, sell and trade
it as they saw fit. Remaining unused parts of the spectrum would
subsequently be sold off to commercial enterprises and be reconstituted
as private electronic real estate, while the FCC would be abolished.
The study argued that government control of the radio frequencies
led to inefficiencies, and that if the spectrum were converted
into private electronic real estate that could be exchanged in
the marketplace, the invisible hand of supply and demand would
dictate the most innovative uses of those frequencies. Congressional
hearings were subsequently conducted on the proposal, quickening
interest in the plan.
Still, the notion of selling off the US airwaves to private
commercial interests seemed a bit too ambitious, even for the
most experienced Washington corporate lobbyists. Then, less than
one month after George Bush assumed the presidency, the letter
from the 37 economists turned up on the FCC's doorstep.
The new thinking: first, secure a partial privatisation plan,
allowing commercial licensees to sell and lease their leased spectrum
in secondary markets. Once done, the commercial foundation would
be laid for a final conversion from government licensing of the
spectrum to a future sell-off to the private sector. Other nations
would be encouraged to follow suit and sell off their spectrums
to global media companies. If some baulked at the idea of relinquishing
control over their airwaves, international trade sanctions could
be imposed to force compliance.
In the industrial age, exchanging property in markets was
the sine qua non of commerce. The role of national governments
was to protect property and markets. But in the new commercial
world being born, having access to the flow of information in
telecommunications networks becomes at least as important as exchanging
property in markets.
If the radio frequencies of the planet were owned and controlled
by global media corporations, how would the billions who live
on earth guarantee their most basic right to communicate with
one another? In an era where more and more of our daily communications
take place in cyberspace, access to the airwaves becomes critical.
Of course, those who can pay will be connected. But what about
the 62% of people who have never made a telephone call, and the
40% who have no electricity? How will they ever secure access
to cyberspace in a world where the admission fee is controlled
by a few global media giants?
If the flow of human communications is controlled by global
media companies, how do we ensure that social and cultural points
of view and political expressions that may differ from those of
the companies who own the frequencies will be allowed to flow
over the spectrum? We might face the prospect of a new form of
repression as global media companies tighten their grip on the
Equally ominous, when companies like AOL-Time Warner, Disney
and Vivendi Universal own the channels of communication as well
as much of the 'content' that flows through them, will the rich
cultural diversity that has traditionally been created and nurtured
in civil society dry up? Will we be left with only a few global
media companies as the ultimate arbiters of human culture?
How do we prevent these companies from exerting undue influence
over commercial life itself, because of their control over the
channels of communications through which business is conducted?
And finally, in the new era, when everyone is connected with everyone
else in commercial information and telecommunications networks,
how do we prevent corporate owners of the radio frequencies from
exploiting the data on people's lives that flows through cyberspace?
What safeguards will people have over their own privacy when every
aspect of their life story is accessible as data bits travelling
over corporate-owned and controlled communications channels?
At the dawn of the global media age more than 20 years ago,
an American government official made the prescient remark that
`trade doesn't follow the flag anymore, it follows the communication
systems'. When our very right to communicate with one another
is no longer assured or secured by government but controlled by
global media conglomerates, can basic freedoms and real democracy
continue to exist?
Jeremy Rifkin is the author of The Age of Access and president
of The Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington DC
and Media Control