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Friday, August 25, 2017

Who Owns the Internet? | The New Yorker - Modern Times

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"What Big Tech’s monopoly powers mean for our culture" according to Elizabeth Kolbert, staff writer at The New Yorker since 1999.

Photo: Nishant Choksi

On the night of November 7, 1876, Rutherford B. Hayes’s wife, Lucy, took to her bed with a headache. The returns from the Presidential election were trickling in, and the Hayeses, who had been spending the evening in their parlor, in Columbus, Ohio, were dismayed. Hayes himself remained up until midnight; then he, too, retired, convinced that his Democratic opponent, Samuel J. Tilden, would become the next President.

Hayes had indeed lost the popular vote, by more than two hundred and fifty thousand ballots. And he might have lost the Electoral College as well had it not been for the machinations of journalists working in the shady corners of what’s been called “the Victorian Internet.”

Chief among the plotters was an Ohioan named William Henry Smith. Smith ran the western arm of the Associated Press, and in this way controlled the bulk of the copy that ran in many small-town newspapers. The Western A.P. operated in tight affiliation—some would say collusion—with Western Union, which exercised a near-monopoly over the nation’s telegraph lines. Early in the campaign, Smith decided that he would employ any means necessary to assure a victory for Hayes, who, at the time, was serving a third term as Ohio’s governor. In the run-up to the Republican National Convention, Smith orchestrated the release of damaging information about the Governor’s rivals. Then he had the Western A.P. blare Hayes’s campaign statements and mute Tilden’s. At one point, an unflattering piece about Hayes appeared in the Chicago Times, a Democratic paper. (The piece claimed that Hayes, who had been a general in the Union Army, had accepted money from a soldier to give to the man’s family, but had failed to pass it on when the soldier died.) The A.P. flooded the wires with articles discrediting the story.

Once the votes had been counted, attention shifted to South Carolina, Florida, and Louisiana—states where the results were disputed. Both parties dispatched emissaries to the three states to try to influence the Electoral College outcome. Telegrams sent by Tilden’s representatives were passed on to Smith, courtesy of Western Union. Smith, in turn, shared the contents of these dispatches with the Hayes forces. This proto-hack of the Democrats’ private communications gave the Republicans an obvious edge. Meanwhile, the A.P. sought and distributed legal opinions supporting Hayes. (Outraged Tilden supporters took to calling it the “Hayesociated Press.”) As Democrats watched what they considered to be the theft of the election, they fell into a funk.

“They are full of passion and want to do something desperate but hardly know how to,” one observer noted. Two days before Hayes was inaugurated, on March 5, 1877, the New York Sun appeared with a black border on the front page. “These are days of humiliation, shame and mourning for every patriotic American,” the paper’s editor wrote.
History, Mark Twain is supposed to have said, doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme. Once again, the President of the United States is a Republican who lost the popular vote. Once again, he was abetted by shadowy agents who manipulated the news. And once again Democrats are in a finger-pointing funk.

Journalists, congressional committees, and a special counsel are probing the details of what happened last fall. But two new books contend that the large lines of the problem are already clear. As in the eighteen-seventies, we are in the midst of a technological revolution that has altered the flow of information. Now, as then, just a few companies have taken control, and this concentration of power—which Americans have acquiesced to without ever really intending to, simply by clicking away—is subverting our democracy.

Thirty years ago, almost no one used the Internet for anything. Today, just about everybody uses it for everything. Even as the Web has grown, however, it has narrowed. Google now controls nearly ninety per cent of search advertising, Facebook almost eighty per cent of mobile social traffic, and Amazon about seventy-five per cent of e-book sales. Such dominance, Jonathan Taplin argues, in Move Fast and Break Things: How Facebook, Google, and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy” (Little, Brown), is essentially monopolistic. In his account, the new monopolies are even more powerful than the old ones, which tended to be limited to a single product or service. Carnegie, Taplin suggests, would have been envious of the reach of Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos.
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Source: The New Yorker  


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