Blog Post

The continued relevance of Herbert Schiller

Schiller makes a compelling argument about the fundamental shift from publicly protected information to corporate control. Traditional protections and decision making previously in the hands of the state have, over the course of the past 50 years, shifted to the private sector. What is significant about this is the way in which, in the communications and information spheres, the transfer of authority has also moved from the public to the private resulting in an "informational machine" that can withhold evidence of its own activities.

One important manifestation of this transfer of power can be seen in the limits to individual expression, previously protected and embodied in the U.S. Constitution. Schiller notes, "The American economy is now hostage to a relatively small number of giant private companies, with inter-locking connections, that set the national agenda. This power is particularly characteristic of the communication and information sector where the national cultural-media agenda is provided by a very small (and declining) number of integrated private combines. The development has deeply eroded free individual expression, a vital element of a democratic society (p. 44)."

Adding to the complexity, corporations are afforded protections as individuals, and work to promote a sense of their marketing and communications and individual self-expression. Attempts at control or censorship of individual expression was once seen as only possible by the state, leaving corporations unencumbered from the burdened perception that they have any power or ability to intrude upon the individual. "Where once there was justified fear of government control and censorship of speech, today there is a new form of censorship, structurally pervasive, grounded in private concentrated control of the media, and generally undetectable in a direct and personal sense (pg 45)."

Schiller elaborates on the ways in which, "Corporate speech has become the dominant discourse...While the corporate voice booms across the land, individual expression, at best, trickles through tiny constricted public circuits. This has allowed the effective right to free speech to be transferred from individuals to billion dollar companies which, in effect, monopolize public communication (pg. 45)." Privatization, deregulation and the expansion of market relationships are cited by Schiller as the environment in which the national information infrastructure has been eroded (pg. 46).

Nowhere is this more evident than in the rise of the commericalized higher education paradigm, where interests in research are increasingly subsidized by corporations as evidenced by the parasitic relationship between researchers conducting clinical trials for food and drug companies. Government information has been outsourced to the private sector, in what Schiller notes as: "The practice of selling government (or any) information serves the corporate user well. Ordinarily individual users go to the end of the dissemination queue. Profoundly antidemocratice in its effect, privatizing and/or selling information, which at one time was considered public property, has become a standard practice in recent years (pg. 48)."

Privatization/contracting out and deregulation in the sphere of public information are having tremendous impact and have led to the commercialization of the Internet, a previously publicly funded (through taxes) project of the government. Schiller provides a detailed examination of the impact of outsourcing and deregulation in the spheres of communication and information, and his work is still timely as we watch the debates over the Open Internet and net neutrality.

Schiller, Herbert. Chapter 3, “Data Deprivation” in Information Inequality: the Deepening Social Crisis in America, 1996.

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