The Internet, the Marketplace of Ideas, and the Public Sphere

This thesis paper was originally written for a journalism course at Ohio Wesleyan University in 2001.


Discussions about the Internet are dominated by colorful and often ill-defined metaphors.  One is expected to surf the information superhighway over to the infobahn, on the way to the digital town hall in the global village to peruse the marketplace of ideas.  This last metaphor, the market where ideas are offered, considered and either accepted or rejected like so much fruit, is more than just a colorful image.  Media and cultural studies often examine the marketplace of ideas theory and the public sphere when examining how mass media work in a democracy.  The Internet seems a natural place to look for both.

Often discussions about the marketplace of ideas and the public sphere are confined the question to whether or not they are worthwhile goals- many critics see them as impossible or rife with flaws.  The marketplace of ideas notion of traditional mass media seems out of sync with reality.  High entry costs into the mass media, central ownership by large corporations, the popular media’s tendency to marginalize radical and little-known ideas, etc., all act as barriers to a free flow of ideas.

The Internet, however, could theoretically create or function as a public forum.  Every media consumer can become a media producer on the Internet, and in some ways (newsgroups and mailing lists, for example) the line between consumers and producers of media are blurred.  Unlike other media, the cost of making a web site viewed by millions is not necessarily larger than a web site viewed by only a handful.  Communication is instantaneous and choice is not limited to what is provided by a few large companies.  Radical groups in every subject from terrorism to literary theory are able to publish as easily as mainstream political parties.

But is the Internet the true public forum, or even a real marketplace of ideas?  A quick look at Internet usage statistics shows relatively few large producers dominating traffic.  According to Nielsen/Netratings, for example, AOL Time Warner recorded 65,954,683 unique visitors in March, out of an estimated 101,965,365

active Internet users that month.1 With well over one billion web sites on the web to visit and the average user only visiting 10 unique sites a month, most of the traffic is going to a limited number of places-just as most readership goes to a limited number of magazines, newspapers, television stations, etc.

But why are web sites with less money and fewer corporate ties having a harder time getting viewers?  What barriers have arisen to make it hard to get a large audience, and why has the Internet followed the lead of central corporate ownership like the rest of the mass media?  How is the Internet like a public forum and how is it not?


The Internet does not function as a de facto public sphere or marketplace of ideas but it does have enormous potential.  Barriers such as the Digital Divide and website funding problems keep the Internet from being a completely free forum while most users most of the time seem to have no interest in entering the public sphere at all.  A few notable examples, however, prove that the Internet has the power to allow public communication, debate, and opinion formation to flourish when users take advantage of it.

Literature Review

The first task to complete in this literature review is a definition for terms.  This paper examines how the Internet does and does not function as a public sphere or marketplace of ideas.  The terms do not have exactly the same meaning but this report uses both concepts to the same effect throughout.

Definition of Terms

Although Jill Gordon’s “John Stuart Mill and the ‘marketplace of ideas'” is intended to delineate the difference between the marketplace of ideas theory and Mill’s actual intent in On Liberty, it provides a good overview of the marketplace concept.  Based on the traditional notion of free market economics, Gordon writes:

“Applying the metaphor to Mill’s text, we must read it to be saying simply that all            opinions are to be expressed; everyone comes to the market with his or her ideas, and through discussion everyone exchanges ideas with one another. The ideas or opinions compete with one another, and we have the opportunity to test all of them, weighing one against the other. As rational consumers of ideas, we choose the ‘best’ among them. In the same way that ‘bad’ products naturally get pushed out of the market because of the lack of demand for them and ‘good’ products thrive because they satisfy a demand, so also ‘good’ ideas prevail in the             marketplace and ‘bad’ ones are weeded out in due course. So, further implicit in the analogy is the notion that the ideas that ultimately prevail in the marketplace must be the ‘best’ in some sense of that word.”2

Inherent in this metaphor is open access to the market both for information providers and for information seekers.  Although Gordon explains that Mill thought minority opinion was more valuable in many ways than the opinion of the majority and that it might need special protection, the marketplace of ideas, for better or worse, does not guarantee anything.  The metaphor includes George W. Bush, John Q. Public and the New York Times in the same equation; if not a single customer is interested in what Jon Q. Public is saying, he has no recourse but to try saying it again.

The marketplace metaphor has many critics.  In “Reconciling Economic and Non-Economic Perspectives on Media Policy: Transcending the ‘Marketplace of Ideas,'” Robert Entman and Steven Wildman advocate dropping the metaphor from use altogether:

“It calls to mind an open forum to which all ideas have access and where all are fairly and judiciously considered.  Yet a great many consumers of ideas might demand precisely the opposite of the buzzing bazaar of diverse intellectual activity the metaphor suggests; they might want to avoid challenging ideas that violate conventional wisdom.  Or, as we argue below, limitations on individuals’ time and intellectual capacity may preclude participation of the type envisioned.”3

Both of their critiques reflect issues that will be discussed later in this paper.  Later in the same essay, however, Entman and Wildman provide an important reason to examine the Internet under this metaphor: it’s one of the most prevalent, heard in “academic conferences, congressional testimony, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule-making inquiries, and other venues for policy research and debate.” 3

The notion of a public sphere is attributed to Jurgen Habermas, who explains in his Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere:

“The bourgeois public sphere may be conceived above all as the sphere of private people come together as a public; they soon claimed the public sphere regulated from above against the public authorities themselves, to engage them in a debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor.”4

Although Habermas does not really see such a public sphere in modern society, such a notion has been used in many critical and theoretical examinations of mass communications.  James Curran examins these ideas in “Rethinking Media and Democracy,” explaining that other writers have attempted to expand this notion into something more democratic:

“…a neutral space within society, free of both state or corporate control, in which the media should make available information affecting the public good, and facilitate a free, open and reasoned public dialogue that guides the public direction of society.”5

Curran is not impressed:

“…this approach does not take adequate account of the intermediary structures of modern democracy.  It also seems to invite us, on the basis of a very unreal view of the past, to see public debate as a mass version of a university seminar conducted through socially responsible media.”5

Curran notes that this formulation of the public sphere has been widely criticized and that Habermas himself has abandoned this version for a broader, but more vague, idea of public debate.   Debating the merits of Habermas’ public sphere is beyond the scope of this paper, however, and the large amount of criticism and discussion using the expanded version above merits its use here.

The marketplace of ideas and the public sphere, therefore, are similar but not identical notions.  Because concepts have multiple interpretations, this will examine the Internet in relation to an open forum, where anyone may choose to express any viewpoint and publish any information for the purpose of members of the public making rational evaluations of this material.  The sum of these evaluations tends to guide public policy and define public truth.

Similar Studies

It is a more difficult task to discuss current literature on this subject.  Journal articles tend to be too focused to take on this issue as a whole.  Magazines and newspapers also either pick one angle or do not go in depth.  Although there is no lack of articles about the Internet posted on the internet itself, this seems a little like begging the question-part of the literature focuses on the difficulty in separating fact from fiction on the net.  Sources which concentrate on specific aspects of the net study examines will be introduced later when relevant.

A good example of how academic writers approach the subject is “Media, discourse, and the public sphere: Electronic memorials to Diana, Princess of Wales” by Marguerite Helmers.  Her thesis is that writing and self-publishing on the web brings Americans into the public sphere, or at least into special-interest portions of it; her “thick description” of the death of Diana and the public response is her focus and takes up the bulk of the paper.  She explains:

“Her death inspired many who perhaps would not typically publish to publish memorials, tributes, and commentary on the World Wide Web, which at one time hosted hundreds of continuously maintained web sites devoted to the memory of Diana… The electronic memorials linked by web rings form a significant archive of popular response to the death of a noble and a celebrity. They have been authored and published on the web by ‘common’ users, writers outside formal publishing structures, and, overall, the site authors identify themselves as  women.”6

The sheer bulk of material created by “common” users and it’s popularity and inherent sense of community surprised many critics in that pop icon worship is supposed to generate passivity.  It’s easy and inexpensive to create web pages devoted to Diana, but this is hardly an absolute marketplace of ideas: webrings, for example, which link hundreds of sites together and are probably the best way to find sites about this subject, are very selective and leave out any negative view of the princess whatsoever.  Helmers  notes that although these sites create a temporary public sphere, it is created as a reaction to mass media information and images and must rely a great deal upon mass media information for content. Throughout the essay she also points out several ways in which sites and their authors are influenced by pop culture and mass media style-the use of hard news or soundbyte writing styles and the soap opera sensibilities of the writing are two examples.

Mark Poster wrote a more direct examination of this subject in Wired Magazine in 1995.  Although his “The Net as a Public Sphere?” was written ages ago in the history of the Internet, Wired has always been a cutting-edge publication and the piece covers the same issues important today.  Poster believes that those who see virtual communities like Usenet (which is still popular and analogous to the forum scattered around the web) as the new town halls “overlook the profound differences between Internet ‘cafés’ and the agoras of the past.”7 He says that although the Internet allows people to talk as equals they have the ability to shift from identity to identity and it does not, as the public sphere should, encourage consensus-building.  Instead, groups are able to fragment from the mainstream more effectively.  Also, much of what goes on is not rational discussion-a theme this paper will examine as well.  Poster in 1995 was unsure of what impact, exactly, the net would have, but was sure it would be big.

Andrew O. Baoill’s “Slashdot and the Public Sphere” is a targeted academic look much like Helmers’ above.  It was not, however, published in a traditional academic journal; First Monday, published in cooperation with the University of Illinois at Chicago, is a journal of Internet-related topics that published solely on the net.  The journal goes through a standard peer review process and the innovative format even gives the journal’s editors’ background information in its attempt to be as credible as a print journal.

After a lengthy review of Habermas and the flaws in his system, Baoill examines Slashdot, a news and discussion web site devoted to technology and geek culture. Slashdot’s editorial model has many features similar to the public sphere model-editors post articles culled from reader submissions and other media and then open discussion on each to all the site’s users.  Baoill examines Slashdot under three aspects of the public forum: universal access, rational debate, and disregard of rank.  The first has some fairly obvious limitations which this paper examines later-the barrier between those with Internet access and those without (known as the Digital Divide), which often rules out participants along socio-economic and sometimes geographical lines.  A discussion titled “Social Changes & Internet Access In The Third World,” for example, will probably exclude many individuals from the third world.

As for the second aspect, Baoill says “anybody who spends a reasonable amount of time browsing Slashdot will realise that many of the comments could not be classified as ‘rational debate.'”8 Both the role its editors play in selecting content and the sites ownership by software producer VA Linux mark possible distortion in the public debate.  Baoill visits Poster’s notion of the problems of rational debate and source evaluation when participants’ can shift and create identities at will, but believes this does not rule out democracy and can actually be a bonus in some ways.  Temporal and physical restraints, such as the tendency for more readers to follow only the first few posts in a discussion thread, may also prevent issues from being completely debated until a consensus is found.

Because of anonymity and the open nature of Slashdot, Baoill thinks it fulfills the third aspect fairly well, although editor’s ability to choose topics may again skew the participation.  Overall, Baoill thinks Slashdot approximates some of the aspects of the public sphere but is doomed, sometimes by necessity, to fail at others.  The challenge of this paper is to extend this discussion to an Internet made up of thousands of sites like Slashdot-does the mass succeed where individual sites might fail?

The in addition to providing a medium for First Monday and publications like it, researchers are also able to find non-published works related to their topic.  Such is Christopher D. Hunter’s “The Internet and the Public Sphere: Revitalization or Decay,” presented at the International Communication Association Convention, in May 1999.9 Hunter examines the internet in terms of four components of the public sphere: the news media, conversations, public opinion formation, and participation.

The news media online are described as racing to post instantaneous reporting with little editing and analysis, as a source of massive amounts of information including searchable archives which leads to information glut, and as a tool for people to personalize news selection but then miss out on public issues.  Also, the press on the web is just one of millions of information sources.

Hunter’s examination of conversation over the Internet notes that the medium was designed to facilitate conversation and through either asynchronous (email, forums) or synchronous (chat) channels it allows for an enormous amount to person-to-person and person-to-group communication.  The anonymity issue, for Hunter, is a mixed bag-although it allows some to break down class barriers, it allows others to attack unmercifully.  Also, discussions in Usenet newsgroups tend to be dominated by a few individuals and the digital divide is still a problem.  Hunter thinks the Internet has potential, but individual users must make concerted effort toward meaningful discussion and overcome the sheer bulk of discussion online.

Hunter breaks public opinion down into the functional model, which includes web polls and other methods of getting an overall public opinion, and the discursive model, which stresses that the sum of all public discourse makes up public opinion.  Web polls have obvious limitations and much of the discourse, he says, is intended for reaffirmation of opinion, not opinion formation.

The logical result of these three parts of the public sphere is action based upon the public opinion.  Hunter examines the Wired Magazine “Digital Citizen” study data but does not find it particularly compelling-wired individuals tend to be better educated and therefor more politically involved anyway.  He sees the rise in email petitions and grassroots organizing via the web as a better indication that the Internet drives political action.  Hunter concludes noting that both the Internet and the public sphere need to be better understood, but sees much potential in the Internet as a whole.

It is notable that these pieces use different formulas when examining this question. Baoill, looking from the public sphere to the Internet, breaks it down into universal access, rational debate, and disregard of rank; Hunter talks about the news media, conversations, public opinion formation, and participation as four components of the sphere.  Posters does not break down his examination so neatly and Helmers looks at a specific event and extrapolated from there.  This paper, however, is not interested in precise definitions of aspects of the public sphere or Marxian critique of the marketplace of ideas.  Instead, it will examine several aspects of the Internet which may or may not be in accord with an intuitive model of an open public forum.


Self publishing and the Digital Divide

In every discussion of the public forum, access is a logical first step.  The Internet is a bit of a paradox in terms of universal access.  For those who have access to a computer and an Internet connection, whether at home, work or at a public library, the cost of entering the public debate by publishing and communicating is virtually nothing.  Those who don’t have access to a computer and net connection, on the other hand, are completely excluded from the debate altogether.  This Digital Divide is well documented;  the Commerce Department’s “Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion” report includes a number of disturbing statistics.  Blacks and Hispanics, for example, lag far behind other groups in internet access.  Single-parent households are far less likely to Internet access, and those with disabilities are often left behind as well.10 A full examination of the Divide is beyond the scope of this paper, but the large numbers of certain demographics who do not have net access does not bode well for it’s status as a public forum.

Those on the other side of the Divide, however, can publish and communicate for free.  Many of the examples examined later in this paper have benefited from this.  The Internet even provides a medium for individuals and companies to get their point of view to the public without going through possibly hostile traditional media channels.  When ABCNews investigated Metabolife International’s diet pills, Metabolife didn’t want the editors taking small sections of interviews out in order to skew their message.  So they taped it themselves and put all 70 minutes of it online. Lawrence K. Grossman was impressed:

“The Internet lets aggrieved parties get their own stories out directly to the public. It offers a more constructive, less expensive, and faster alternative than a libel or defamation suit. It’s a tactic that shouldn’t muzzle legitimate news stories, stop good reporters from investigating real problems, or threaten to bankrupt the press as many lawsuits do.”11

The web has also ushered in a boom of media criticism.  Countless sites comment on news stories and media practices, acting as watchdog’s watchdog.  Using the Internet gives them several advantages including timeliness and the ability to link to sources and material being examined.12

How political is the net?

Talking about the Internet as a public forum, town hall or marketplace of ideas begs the question: just how much public debate is really going on?  Although it could be argued that every subject-and therefore every web site-has a political element, it might be more valuable to get a handle on how much of the net is devoted to politics as opposed to commerce, entertainment and homepages devoted to the family cat.

Search engines, which catalogue the largest percentage of the net, are of little use in this study because they do not usually categorize sites en masse.13 Searchable directories, although they cover a smaller percentage of the net, do categorize and can provide a sort of estimate of web site demographics.  One of the largest directories, used by many of the popular search engines as a supplement to their search results, is the Open Directory Project, which categorizes over two million web sites.14 Only about 170,000 of those come under the top-level heading of Society (which includes Activism, Politics, Government, Law and Issues among other subheadings), while the business heading lists about 180,000 sites.  The figure below includes a list of all the top-level headings and the number of links within each.  Society and News, which cover traditional public debate issues, add up to less than one fourth of the links under the other categories (except Regional and World, which may include both types of links).  This is by no means scientific evidence-the Open Directory is run by literally thousands of “editors” who select sites for the listing and does not represent a random sample, and the directory headings so not represent concrete divisions between public debate issue sites and others.  But it seems clear that for the most part, the Internet is not devoted to public issues and debate.

Open Directory Project14 Yahoo! Geocities15
Category Sites Category Sites
Arts 236,649 Business & Finanace 15226
Games 40,592 Computers & Internet 20063
Kids and Teens 11,638 Entertainment & Arts 59744
Reference 78,059 Family & Home 18340
Shopping 97,890 Games 21397
Business 180,103 Health & Wellness 10132
Health 48,903 Hobbies & Crafts 9338
Computers 100,735 Music 36460
Home 30,110 Recreaction & Sports 37334
Recreation 96,478 Regional 14354
Science 70,882 Religion & Beliefs 14679
Sports 72,094 Schools & Education 8219
subtotal 1,064,133 Science 16226
Regional 629,835
World 381,881 Cultures & Community 21107
subtotal 1,011,716 Government & Politics 5822
News 47,881
Society 173,722
subtotal 221,603

The Open Directory takes into account all manner of sites-what about self publishers?  A good way to look at how many self-published sites are devoted to public issues is to look at the Yahoo GeoCities Member Pages directory listing.  GeoCities allows anyone to publish a web site for free in exchange for advertising space on each site and therefore represents the lowest barrier of entry to the market for would-be publishers.  The listing includes more than 300,000 sites, but only about 27,000 fall under the categories of Cultures & Community or Government & Politics.15 Although other categories such as Science and Religion & Beliefs may be hotbeds of debate, they are usually more subject-specific than public debate; nevertheless, it is clear that even when self publishing completely for free, the majority of users are not contributing to political or public debate.

This trend has not gone unnoticed.  Andrew Kohut, writing in Columbia Journalism Review, noted that a Pew Research Center Poll found internet users’ desire for news and information online to be growing exponentially without a corresponding rise in knowledge of public issues and interest in public affairs:

“The Internet’s ability to customize news delivery and provide an extraordinary depth of information about specific topics may actually work against the public’s aggregate level of information about the larger world, much in the way cable TV has.”16

A logical next step would be to examine politics on the net.  Although only a fraction of the booths in the Internet marketplace are selling political discussion, the net is incredibly large and therefor large-scale political interaction is still quite possible.  There have been several well-publicized indicators of the impact of the Internet on politics.  John McCain’s use of his web site in the 2000 Republican Primaries is a good example.  At one point shortly after his win in New Hampshire, McCain’s site had raised $5.6 million dollars, representing about a quarter of his total.  McCain also used a list of over 130,000 email addresses to organize and communicate with supporters.  The other candidates responded by upping the online competition:  “Along with his counterparts in the Bush, Gore, and Bradley campaigns, [McCain web consultant Max] Fose has transformed political candidates’ Web sites from bland electronic billboards into jumping interactive campaign centers.  Each has brought an electronic innovation.”17

Many politicians and public figures espouse the benefits of the net.  Bill Clinton opened the first Oracle Apps World conference in New Orleans not long after leaving office with these words:

“Despite the fall of dot-coms, the Internet still holds our future. What the government ought to do is to empower individuals and promote sense of community through the Internet.”18

Both the 2000 election and Clinton’s lip service are examples of already-established political figures extending their reach into the Internet-which is not necessarily indicative of the development of a marketplace of ideas.  If the Internet is to be considered the public sphere, it cannot be merely another tool of political parties and large interest groups like television and radio.  Richard Davis, writing before the 2000 election, saw this as a problem:

“Rather than acting as a revolutionary tool rearranging political power and instigating direct democracy, the Internet is destined to become dominated by the same actors in American politics who currently utilize other mediums. Undoubtedly, public expression will become more common and policy makers will be expected to respond hastily.  But the mobilization of public expression will still largely be the creation of groups and individuals who currently dominate the political landscape.  And the information that the public will obtain electronically will come primarily from the same sources on which they currently rely and will not feature interaction by more people than currently exists via other means.”19

But how will the current political figures and gatekeepers stay in power even as more public expression is facilitated?  Davis asserts that readers want organization, to their information-which is the traditional role of journalists.  They will also be more likely to want information from familiar names and groups-feminists will remember to visit rather than Jane Q. Public’s webzine.  Although the web is expected to enhance citizen information, citizen-public official interaction, and influence on policy making, Davis doesn’t buy it:

“These lofty predictions assume something quite unusual-dramatic changes in   human behavior …for the majority who are politically less interested, this scenario is unreal.  These people will not be more likely, just because of a technological innovation, to suddenly acquire an interest in politics and follow the above scenario.”20

Jeremy Harris Lipschultz, when examining the role of the Internet in the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal, found the debate over Matt Drudge’s reporting tactics and the release of Ken Starr’s report online to be less than public debate:

“To the extent that the political speech remained highly controlled and manipulated, one could argue, the illusion of a greater freedom of expression clouded the ability of the average citizen to be empowered by new technologies.”21

It seems very likely that the net will not change the fact that those with political power and control of the traditional media set the agenda, are able to manipulate public opinion to their ends, and enjoy a public largely apathetic or disinterested in public debate.  Several high profile political movements in the past two years, however, make this far from a forgone conclusion.  Probably the most important internet-organized movement was the World Trade Organization protest in Seattle in December 1999.  Protesters were organized and mobilized via email and the web and online journalists put together the most up-to-date and in-depth coverage of the event.  Clancy Sigal, who participated in the online public debate, wrote in the Los Angeles Times:

“My access to the Internet-the key organizing tool in bringing tens of thousands to the port city in protest over the 135-nation WTO meeting-gave me unparalleled political power. I did it comfortably from my office chair. Lenin had to stand on a soap box freezing his backside in snow blizzards. All I had to do was press the ‘F’ for the forward button and ‘mobilize the masses’ at my fingertip.”22

Sigal describes not only organization and communication efforts by established interest groups like the Teamsters and Sierra Club, but also a plethora or small groups well outside the mainstream including dissident group Hackworth, the International Workers of the World, AlterNet and Left-org.  This is hardly a case of the public being manipulated by the mainstream elite.  Moreover, Sigal describes an almost textbook description of the public sphere at work:

“Even among 13-year-olds, there was genuine debate about unsexy subjects like trade liberalization, tariff barriers, agricultural subsidies and export regulations and fierce but friendly arguments about nonviolence versus trashing ‘capitalist property.’ An electronic consensus was achieved, namely, the WTO delegates’ habit of secrecy was odious, and power without responsibility was uncool. It was as clarion-clear as a Tom Paine pamphlet.”22

An earlier Los Angeles Times article described the role of the Internet in the protest.  Months before the event “there were dozens of ‘listservs,’ or e-mail discussion groups, devoted to devising ways to disrupt the event. By this fall, there was a central web site… seeking volunteers, distributing fliers, providing directions and even assisting protesters in finding lodging.”  The Internet was not just a digital version of traditional alternative press and small press magazines.  “The site has gone well beyond the usual position papers and solicitations for volunteers. It has served as a distribution center for such traditional materials as fliers that activists can print and post on telephone poles and bulletin boards.”23

The Seattle protest was a study in the power of the web to spread information and fuel public discourse for both those participating and those sitting at home.  Web sites and online journalists provided up-to-date and realtime reports on the protest while providing background information on the different groups and their positions.  The Seattle Independent Media Center, HistoryLink Gazette, Z Magazine, Public Citizen, Mother Jones, the Nation and the Seattle Weekly were among the publications providing this information over the web.  The Seattle Times and the Economist both provided more traditional (and more conservative) coverage of the event online as well.24

The recent FTAA protest in Quebec is another example of a political movement and debate seemingly made possible by the Internet.25 These two debates are particularly interesting because they are over globalization-an issue that is hard to break down along party lines.  In fact, protest organizers come from environmental, labor, women’s rights, and even Marxist camps.  Defenders of globalization include Republicans, Democrats, independents, and immigrants among others.  First, the broad range of ideologies and easy entry into the debate are classic marketplace of ideas concepts. And the fact that both sides have interacted online and groups with varying ideologies have found common ground is no doubt akin to Habermas’ formation of public opinion.

Just as many small political groups have used the Internet to organize and expand, so have many hate groups, from the Ku Klux Klan to Neo-Nazis to new, unheard of groups.  Usually the marketplace of ideas is seen as beneficial or something to strive for, but, as Entman and Wildman alluded, many people don’t like this aspect and wish to censor hate sites altogether.  The Simon Wiesenthal Center, for example, sent a letter to a slew of Internet service providers in 1996 recommending they refuse to host hate sites.  They suggested the ISPs had a First Amendment right and a moral obligation to deny these groups access to the marketplace.  Ultimately these efforts fail, however, because there are simply too many ISPs in too many countries; hate sites will always be able to find a home.26 In this way the net functions as the marketplace of ideas would dictate, for better or ill.

Marketplace v. Marketplace

So far both established political players, highly focused cutting-edge interest groups and hate groups have all found success online and contributed, in some way, to the public debate.  But there are other players who wish to contribute to the marketplace, and not all are meeting with success.  The 2000 election spawned a number of political portals designed to be the general user’s guide to political parties and participation, including,, and others.  After collecting large sums of venture capital, many of these sites found their business model was not working-either not enough people were coming to the site or they couldn’t make enough money off those who were.  Because of the marketplace of capital, then, they were pulled from the marketplace of ideas-shut down.  Martin Edlund in the New Republic explains:

“In retrospect, the idea that the political portals would make any headway on this problem seems somewhat delusional-of a piece with the broader dot-com optimism that reigned before the April 2000 crash. The portals convinced dozens of funders to put up millions of dollars, but couldn’t budge the American electorate out of its political malaise.”27

If it were just political portals facing these problems, the public sphere might be able to move on-perhaps they were just a bad idea in general.  But when very popular, innovative, informative sites are going out of business, there’s a new problem. is just such an example.  The crime and justice news site was known for its fight to put judges’ financial disclosures online and, even while crashing and burning financially, had more than 500,000 page views per day.

Hoag Levins, vice president of, wrote a piece in Columbia Journalism Review that laid the blame for the crash squarely on the shoulders of skittish Wall Street investors.  He argued that the crashes and cutbacks of many news sites did not speak to the worth of independent journalism online but rather the unsound financial foundation on which they were built.28, a news site which has provided source material for this paper, is one of the best-known independent news sites on the web.  Still, Frank Houston writes in Columbia Journalism Review, they have been forced by the market to “get big, get gobbled up, or get out of the game.”  Houston notes that Salon’s chief competitor, Slate, has not faced the same difficulties-most likely because Slate is owned by Microsoft, a company with very deep pockets.29

It seems that even if Levins is right about the practicality and public demand for good online journalism, economics may prove a barrier to the marketplace of ideas, just as printing expenses has limited who can publish in the offline marketplace.

Speaking of Microsoft…

The introduction mentioned the fact that although there are billions of web pages, an inordinate amount of web traffic goes to a few large sites.  This does not seem to indicate a robust debate via self-publishing.  This concentration in web traffic is can not be totally attributed to better content or information-in fact, these sites are networks of sites which provide many of the same services to visitors.  The top eight sites, all portals, attempt to keep users on their site by providing a multitude of services and controlling the information and options visitors receive.  AOL Time Warner, Yahoo!, MSN, Microsoft, Lycos, Excite@Home, Walt Disney Internet Group, and About all want users to use their email account, and therefor sign up for their news clipping service, and therefor read news from their sources, and perhaps therefor hear about the new fall lineup on the network they have an interest in.  AOL Time Warner and MSN have the particular advantage of being ISPs-they can try to guide users through their own content right from the first mouse click.

The table below is telling.  Nieslen/NetRatings estimates there were 101,965,365 active Internet users in March 2001.  Of those, 65 percent visited an AOL site, 56 percent a Yahoo! Site, and 45 percent a MSN site.  Nieslen also estimates that the average user visited only 10 sites in March.1 This reflects the fact that user time and resources are limited-so it is even more important for portals to gain name recognition and get users to go to their site habitually.  The top ten sites dominate the bulk of Internet traffic.  Although many of them include free web servers and online forums, there is always the threat that any one of them is using its market control to influence the public debate.

Nielsen/NetRatings Top 10 Web Properties, Month of March 2001, U.S.1
Property Unique Audience Reach % Time per Person
1. AOL Time Warner 65,954,683 64.68 0:51:07
2. Yahoo! 56,050,589 54.97 1:19:57
3. MSN 46,670,907 45.77 1:07:29
4. Microsoft 27,178,849 26.66 0:10:03
5. Terra Lycos 25,608,702 25.12 0:15:02
6. Excite@Home 21,879,230 21.46 0:32:44
7. Walt Disney Internet Group 18,164,190 17.81 0:27:19
8. About The Human Internet 17,556,644 17.22 0:10:53
9. eBay 15,646,228 15.34 1:42:27
10. Amazon 14,743,745 14.46 0:13:28

Noam Chompsky, in an interview with CorpWatch, saw this as a large problem:

“They want to control access, and that’s a large part of Microsoft’s efforts: control access in such a way that people who access the Internet will be guided to things that *they* want, like home marketing service, or diversion, or something or other. If you really know exactly what you want to find, and have enough information and energy, you may be able to find what you want. But they want to make that as difficult as possible. And that’s perfectly natural. If you were on the board of directors of Microsoft, sure, that’s what you’d try to do.”30

This tactic seems to be very successful for large sites like those listed above, but they’re not the only ones trying to draw and keep viewers.  Newspapers and broadcast media are leading a charge to become portals as well.  James Ledbetter wrote about this issue in 1999 and found a disturbing trend: none of the portals saw journalism as their core purpose.  The whole point in becoming a portal is to generate more income, and good journalism often doesn’t help you sell anything.31 Sports coverage might, online auctions might, and offering free email accounts may keep readers around longer looking at your ads, but none of those things do much to further public debate.

In truth, portals can do little to prevent users from typing in different URLs and going to multiple sites for information and communication.  Most portals even include a general Internet search engine.  So why do newspapers and other portals put so much effort into capturing and keeping readers?  A quick look at the NetRatings data above makes it plain-these tactics work.  Many users are apparently more likely to click on a convenient proprietary link than go through the extra trouble of evaluating search engine results or typing in URLs.

Corporations employ other tactics that modify the flow of information and discussion as well.  The Digital Millenium Copyright Act of 1998 helped establish owners’ rights to copyrighted material online.  Copyright protection in and of itself is not a problem, but the Internet brings up many gray areas where an owner’s right to their intellectual property conflicts with fair use and the open forum.

Lipschultz brings up a good example in the conflict between the Washington Post and the Free Republic’s White Water discussion board.  Jim Robinson, the site’s moderator, posted excerpts and news clips from other sources to begin discussions, which may then grow to include hundreds of posts.  A seemingly classic public sphere.  But the Washington Post felt their material was being taken illegally and used to compete against them.  The Free Republic started putting disclaimers in posts saying the material was “solely to be fairly used for the educational purposes of research and open discussion” but this did not make the Post happy.32

Napster is another example.  Although Napster was used to trade music files, not political commentary, the RIAA’s court victory33 is a good example of how copyright law is used to stem the flow of information.  That is not to say that the Napster ruling was necessarily bad for the public interest, but it has put a stop to a huge marketplace of data that users were very interested in keeping alive.


Clearly, the Internet is many things to many people.  Some limitations, such as the Digital Divide and the inability of even some popular sites to stay in business are obvious detractors from participation in the public sphere.  Neither the public sphere nor the marketplace makes participation in the political discourse mandatory, so the fact that most of the net is devoted to entertainment and business rather than debate is not a fatal flaw, but merely a reflection of what people want.  It seems that even with the incredible amount of information available, net users are not that much better informed about public policy in general and are generally no more likely to participate in the democratic process.  Also, it seems that many users are more likely to simply read what’s put in front of them by MSN or AOL than make an effort to find and evaluate new sources of information.  Large companies take advantage of this as well as copyright law with little consideration for expanding public debate.

Just as no one is forced to participate, those who have access are not prevented either.  Cases like the WTO and FTAA protests, McCain’s online fundraising success, and the rise of hate sites show that the net can be an open forum for public debate when and if people take the initiative and use it as such.  As some of the literature has mentioned, factors like anonymity and the net’s ability to disseminate information incredibly quickly can give even political outsiders a way to reach people and organize themselves.  In the end, the Internet nothing but technology in and of itself.  What matters now, and will matter even more as the medium matures, is how individuals use it-whether passively reading Yahoo’s sports and weather or actively organizing political coalitions against globalization.

Works Cited

1.         “Nielsen//NetRatings Hot Off The Net.”  NetRatings.  March 2001.  21 April 2001           <>.

2.      Gordon, Jill.  “John Stuart Mill and the ‘marketplace of ideas.'”  Social Theory and          Practice 23.2 (Summer 1997): 237.

3.      Entman, Robert M. and Steven S. Wildman. “Reconciling Economic and Non- Economic Perspectives on Media Policy: Transcending the ‘Marketplace of Ideas.'”          Journal of Communication 42.1 (Winter 1992): 6.

4.         Habermas, Jurgen.  The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere

An Inquiry into a Category of Bourgeois Society.  Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1989. 27.

5.      Curran, James.  “Rethinking Media and Democracy.”  Mass Media and Society.           New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2000.  135.

6.      Helmers, Marguerite.  “Media, discourse, and the public sphere: Electronic          memorials to Diana, Princess of Wales.” College English 63.4 (March 2001): 437-         456.

7.      Poster, Mark.  “The Net as a Public Sphere?”  Wired 3.11 (November 1995).           <>.

8.      Baoill, Andrew O.  “Slashdot and the Public Sphere.”  First Monday 5.9 (September          2000).  21 April 2001  <>.

9.      Hunter, Christopher D.  “The Internet and the Public Sphere: Revitalization or          Decay,” presented at the International Communication Association Convention          (San Francisco), May 1999.  21 April 2001          <>.

10.    “Falling Through the Net: Toward Digital Inclusion.”  U.S. Dept. of Commerce National Telecommunications & Information Administration.  October 2000.  21     April 2001  <>.

11.         Grossman, Lawrence K.  “A New Way to Beat the Press: Make You Case on the     Internet.”  Columbia Journalism Review.  January/February 2000.           <>.

12.         Ledbetter, James.  “The Critics: Internet.”  Columbia Journalism Review.           March/April 2000.  <>.

13.    “Search Engine Ratings, Reviews and Tests.”  Search Engine Watch.           April 2001.  21 April 2001          <>.

14.    Open Directory Project.  Netscape.  21 April 2001.  21 April 2001          <>.

15.    Yahoo! GeoCities  Member Pages.  Yahoo! Inc.  21 April 2001.  21 April 2001           <>.

16.    Kohut, Andrew.  “Internet Users Are On the Rise; But Public Affairs Interest Isn’t.”           Columbia Journalism Review.  January/February 2000.          <>.

17.    Glasser, Jeff and Betsy Streisand.  “Virtual campaign pays off.”  U.S. News and World Report 128.9 (6 March 2000): 22.

18.    Buelva, Alma J.  “Clinton Eyes Further Dev’t Of Internet.” Computerworld.  26 February 2001.

19.    Davis, Richard.  The Web of Politics: The Internet’s Impact on the American Political System.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.  5.

20.         Lipschultz, Jeremy.  Free Expression in the Age of the Internet.  Boulder, Colorado:          Westview Press, 2000. 23.

21     Ibid. 160.

22     Sigal, Clancy.  “Want to join a protest? Press ‘forward’; WTO: As the Seattle          demonstrations proved, there’s a quiet revolution being organized on the Internet.” Los Angeles Times. 20 December 1999: Metro, Part B, 7.

23.    Miller, George.  “WTO summit: Protest in Seattle; Internet fueled global interest in          disruptions; Computers: E-mail in January launched cyberspace planning for the          actions, including aid in finding Seattle lodgings.”  Los Angeles Times.  2          December 1999: Part A, 24.
24.    Morgan, Fiona.  “WTO protesters go to the Web: Guerrilla journalists and webcams          bring you all the tear-gassed excitement of Seattle’s street protests.”  1          December 1999.  21 Apr 2001           <>.

25.    Lindsey, Daryl.  “Free trade, closed talks.”  20 April 2001.  21 April 2001  <>.

26.    Trager, Robert and Donna L. Dickerson.  “The Internet and private censorship.”           Freedom of Expression in the 21st Century.  Thousand Oaks, California: Pine Forge   Press, 1999.  82-84.
27.    Edlund, Martin.  “Politically Incorrect: Online Politics: a Post-Mortem.”  The New Republic Online.  29 November 2000.  21 April 2001           <>.

28.    Levins, Hoag.  “Counterpoint:  Dot-com Doubts?  I Doubt It.” Columbia Journalism Review.  September/October 2000.          <>.

29.    Houston, Frank.  “Get Big, Sell Out, or Die.”  Columbia Journalism Review.           July/August 2000.  <>.

30.    Couey, Anna and Joshua Karliner. “Microsoft: One World Operating System: A          Corporate Watch Interview with Noam Chomsky.”  CorpWatch.  21 April 2001          <>.

31.         Ledbetter, James.  “Web Watch: Some Pitfalls in Portals.”  Columbia Journalism Review.  November/December 1999.  <>.

32.         Lipschultz, Jeremy.  “Property Right in a Digital Age.”  Free Expression in the Age of the Internet.  Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2000.  241-244.

33.    Cave, Damien “Napster gets court’s marching orders.”  6 March 2001.           21 April 2001          <>.