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Resisting corporate control of communications infrastructure

By Victoria Goff

This is the first in a series of columns on the 14th Environmental Justice principle: Environmental Justice opposes the destructive operations of multi-national corporations.

Did you know that right now, there are six corporations that control almost 90 percent of the media produced in the United States? GE, News-Corp, Disney, Viacom, Time and CBS control almost all the media you see on radio, television, the Internet and in print. What this means on a smaller scale is that 70 percent of the television you watch is programmed by one of these corporations. Another thing this means is that 80 percent of the playlists on radio today match —that is, you have to work very hard to find original non-corporate music that is created by local musicians.

On a bigger scale, this complete domination by six corporations over media in the United States points to something far more sinister and complex, something that the 14th Environmental Justice principle works to address.

Namely, when media is controlled to this level by corporations, the right to communicate becomes at its core, monetized. Or, communication’s infrastructure is something that is only supported with resources if there is profit in it. The human right to communicate is not only not acknowledged, but actively worked against.

You can see shades of this monetization of communication right here in Detroit simply by looking at which communities in Detroit have easy access to not just the Internet, but computers, lap tops and smart phones. These communities also have an abundance of coffee shops and easy access to libraries to use computers or access the Internet, if the cost of home Internet is simply unaffordable. Other communities — or the communities where schools are being shut down and there are no coffee shops to speak of — are simply not going online.

Structural inequality and unjust distribution of resources are the core foundation of the digital divide. Poor communities not only don’t have a lot of access to the fundamental tools needed to communicate through technology, but there are scant few corporations that are working to make their services available to those communities. And mergers between massive media corporations, which are often approved on the basis that they address access issues, actually make access an even more complicated process. For example, part of the approval process for the recent merger between Comcast and NBC included the requirement that Comcast/NBC offer low-cost Internet access to marginalized communities. While low-cost Internet can be extremely helpful to people on a budget, Comcast/NBC actually uses individual school lunch eligibility to determine who is eligible for low-cost Internet rather than community-driven standards. The impetus to address structural inequality, then, is on the individual, rather than the corporation that helped to create the inequality to begin with.

So, what are the consequences of this monetization of communication by six corporations? Why should we care that there are so few ways for people most affected by lack of access to communication infrastructure to get access? Perhaps the biggest consequence is how community voices are controlled and silenced by these six corporations. For example, because 80 percent of the playlists on the radio are essentially the same recycled playlists that have been played for the past 10-20 years, hip hop from conscientious rappers who choose to ground their messages in community needs is rarely, if ever, played — and more importantly, it’s rarely, if ever, heard. Similarly, many politicians and even corporations are up on Twitter these days, but make it next to impossible to access them face-to-face. As such, people on Twitter can potentially have a conversation with anybody from Barack Obama to the media team at General Motors, while those who try to go to an office, as Michael Moore so famously showcased in his documentary “Roger and Me,” can easily be sidestepped or put off.

In another situation, groups like the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization have noticed how much of the applications for different types of benefits like Welfare and Social Security have moved online. And you almost can’t apply for a job with paper applications anymore. It is not just access to people that communication infrastructure makes possible — it is also survival resources like money for food and jobs.

So, the consequences of six corporations controlling most media in the United States are not only that the playlists are boring and repetitious or that the same information is considered “news” across all the stations that air it, it’s that entire communities are being denied access to their basic human and civil rights.

What would happen if communities began to refuse the monetization and corporatization of their communication infrastructure? This is a question the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition has undertaken with their work with the Detroit Future Program. The Detroit Future Program operates under the principle that communication is a human right, and among some of the many things it does is train people to produce their own media, provide access to different types of technology that community members otherwise might not have, work in schools with young people so they can learn how to create their own media, and create partnerships between businesses and local artists so that marketing needs can be met.

What would happen if communities across Detroit had access to media models of this sort? What would happen if communities across the state did? Across the country? Or even the world? Can locally owned and produced media change the world?

Victoria Goff is part of the communication coordinator team at East Michigan Environmental Action Council.

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