People who surf around on the Internet often get dazzled by the information and pictures that pop up with a flick of a keystroke. With the right equipment and connections, it is possible to browse through library records in a German university, or check out the photographs that a Japanese artist put in his computer gallery. People can find articles from newspapers around the world, or check out literally thousands of wide-open discussion groups, or buy books, or "chat" with other Internet users, or just bop around like a tourist cruising some huge city, peeking in here and there. The Internet is not yet tightly and directly regulated--there are lots of Web sites and discussion groups where you can get information and news that is ordinarily suppressed by the system's corporate media.
After the U.S. government opened the Net for non-government use in the late 1980s, the number of users started doubling every year. In May 1995 there were 93 countries hooked up to the internet. By August 1995 there were over 208.
It's no wonder, in many ways, that people start to imagine that the Internet could "bring the world closer" and create a new "global community" where ordinary people can check each other out, and where hateful dictators and TV anchors can no longer censor the flow of information.
At the same time, the cyber-reality is that this Internet has been created and developed under capitalism. Those who control this system have no intention of allowing new technologies to "empower" the masses of people in ways that seriously undermine the system. They intend to use this new communications system to rationalize, stabilize and strengthen their worldwide networks for making profit. And those interests have shaped the Internet at every stage of its growth. And increasingly, as the importance of the Internet becomes obvious to the U.S. ruling class, extremely calculated political and military decisions are being made about how to even more tightly control the way computers circulate information.
Though the Internet now has at least some subscribers in almost every country--it remains fundamentally a network radiating out of the U.S.--tying all kinds of scientific and technical elites more closely together and tying privileged strata in other countries more closely to the U.S.
Internet access requires a computer, a modem hookup to telephone lines and some kind of arrangement with a "host" computer that is connected to the Internet itself. For the masses of people in the world, those things are simply not available. The Internet is one more arena labeled "not for you."
There are about 5 billion people on Earth today. Only 150 million of them have access to computers--only 30 in every 1,000 or 3 percent. By comparison, 1.3 billion people on the planet live in absolute poverty--about 260 in every 1,000 without even a basic survival diet.
The way the system has distributed computers makes access even more unequal: the computers are overwhelmingly concentrated in a handful of the wealthiest imperialist countries, especially the U.S.
The U.S. alone, with only 5 percent of the world's people, has half of the world's computer capacity. Three-quarters of the world's phone lines are concentrated in the imperialist countries, where only 15 percent of the world's population lives.
For vast, vast stretches of this planet there are essentially no computers. Those that show up are overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of various military forces or the offices of imperialist corporations. A quarter of the world's countries have more than 100 people for every working phone. In fact, about half of the people in the world have never even used a telephone! (Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1996)
In short, in oppressed Third World countries that contain the overwhelming majority of humanity, computers are beyond the reach of all but the most wealthy. And even for the wealthy, there is often no regular electrical current or stable connections to the global telephone networks that tie the Internet together.
The Internet itself reflects this same global lopsidedness of imperialism/ capitalism.
Over 200 countries are now hooked up to the Internet. But The Internet Report, an investment analysis by Wall Street's Morgan Stanley, estimates that well over half of the host computers on the Internet are in the U.S.--and the 188 poorer countries put together have less than 5 percent of the Internet's host connections. (Hosts are the computers of institutions like universities, corporations or internet providers, that then make internet connections available to individual users.)
Though estimates vary, about 30 million people--about 6 in every 1,000 people--are said to have sent or received computerized letters called "e-mail." And far fewer, an estimated 10 million people in the world--about 2 in every 1,000 people--used the Internet's "World Wide Web" in 1995. Boardwatch magazine has argued that such typical estimates are exaggerated, and calculates the real number of Internet users is currently closer to 7 million.
Whatever the precise number, those Internet users are distributed extremely unequally. Very few--almost none--are among the billions of people who live in the peasant villages or Third World shantytowns. According to a Georgia Tech survey, about 75 percent of the Internet's users live in the U.S. And two-thirds of them are male.
Scientific American (May 1995) published an article entitled "Information Have-nots: A vicious circle isolates many Third World Scientists." The article documents how the intensifying poverty of many oppressed countries is making Third World universities and research institutes increasingly unable to even subscribe to scholarly journals. Researchers in much of Africa and Asia are similarly unable to get modern computers and access to the Internet. According to this article, "The explosive growth of networks and CD-ROM drives that promises to open up science publishing in the U.S. and Europe to a larger audience thus threatens to strangle the South's [the Third World] access."
Michael Kidron and Ronald Segal write in their State of the World Atlas: "CNN (the satellite-distributed news network) and the Internet (the transnational matrix of computer networks) together reach no more than two percent of the world's population."
In short, the rapid increase in worldwide computer communications is not "democratizing" access to information. On the contrary, as the Internet gives some networks of people more access to valuable information, it is widening the gap between the "info-rich" and the vast majority of people who are "info-poor." Only a tiny sliver of humanity is involved in the Internet. And though students and middle class people in the U.S. have been getting themselves on-line, that sliver remains overwhelmingly concentrated in the scientific, corporate and military elites of the imperialist countries, especially the U.S.
The "global community" that the Internet binds together closely mirrors the oppressive inequalities and power-relations of the world capitalist market.
"The rich can afford big houses and -- if they have taste--beautiful houses. The middle class is asked to downgrade their expectations and to live more of their lives in cyberspace. So the rich get the real world, the middle class get the cyber-world and the poor are increasingly being shunted off into one sort of enclave or another."
Bob Stein, founder of Voyager, a company publishing interactive media for computers
Within the U.S. too, capitalism has developed the Internet in ways that reflect and intensify the inequalities of class society.
About 40 million people in the U.S., 160 in every 1,000, have some contact with personal computers (PCs). Much of that is through various kinds of data entry in office jobs--it usually doesn't involve much of a "window into cyberspace."
In the U.S., only 100 out of every 1,000 use their computers for communication--receiving and sending e-mail. Only 80 out of every 1,000 people in the U.S. have used the Internet. And only 30 in every 1,000 have used the Internet's World Wide Web.
Who gets access? Basically, those with money and those with connections to corporations and universities who encourage Internet use.
The majority of Internet users in the U.S. get their connections through corporate or university Internet hosts--where there is often considerable control over what kinds of Internet sites people are allowed to explore. A recent survey by Dataquest showed that 60 percent of medium-to-large U.S. corporations surveyed had some kind of Internet hookup in all their departments. The Georgia Tech study suggests that even with university connections the access is limited: it reports that only a quarter of Internet users in U.S. universities are students.
At the same time, there has been a rapid rise in the numbers of people in the U.S. buying personal accounts with private computer networks or the Internet. But here too, the barriers of class are intense. Working people can rarely afford home computer setups with modems--or even the $20-a-month for an Internet account. Many already have enough trouble just paying their monthly telephone bills!
A 1995 survey of the U.S. Department of Commerce showed how much computer usage in the U.S. is restricted to certain classes of people. Only 4 to 8 percent of people in poor families--making under $10,000--have any access to a computer. In families with middle incomes--about $34,000 a year--only about a quarter have access to computers. In those families making over $75,000, computer use jumps to 65 percent.
The vast majority of poor folks have no connections at all to computers or the Internet. And poor kids aren't being trained for it. Students in poor neighborhoods often get decent textbooks and sometimes have to study in gyms or hallways because of crumbling class rooms. The system is obviously not financing these poor schools with the kind of expensive computers and computer training that have become "normal" in the wealthy suburban schools!
That's why millions of people say, "The information superhighway don't stop in my hood."
As PCs have become an everyday part of entry-level office work in the U.S.--millions of people feel themselves being further and further cut off from even that. Meanwhile, the computers are eliminating many kinds of clerical jobs in business--and are used to "rationalize" all kinds of production and inventory to further reduce jobs and speed up work. Poor and working people are not only largely shut out of the "computer revolution"--but that "computer revolution" is also helping to shut them out of jobs and opportunities that were once open to them.
From the beginning of the Internet, capitalism has also maintained considerable control over what information is available in cyberspace. The Internet wasn't set up to encourage solidarity among oppressed people! Some people are working to do that on the Internet--and the system is working to place increased obstacles in their path, including censorship, spying and outright police attacks.
But from the start, the Internet was intended to serve imperialism. It started during the 1970s as a secret system for connecting U.S. military researchers.
As it has grown, it has remained heavily dominated by the U.S. and by the English language. If you want access to this world of information, you're forced to learn the language of the dominant imperialist power.
And the content of the Internet has heavily reflected the reactionary values and needs of the system--from massive military traffic during the Gulf War, to the heavy focus on "technology for profit."
Just one example: The Internet Report casually describes pornography as a "major, early-stage driver" of Internet development. Thanks to capitalism, global computerized communications immediately became a new vehicle for the exploitation of women. Huge Internet resources are dedicated to circulating pornographic pictures. And the Internet has become a marketplace where men with money can browse "personal page" catalogues where hundreds and hundreds of Third World women are offered for sale.
In a typical reactionary twist, this capitalist pornography then becomes the justification for carrying out government censorship of the Internet--which will inevitably be turned against anti-capitalist currents on the Net.
Elaborate plans have been worked up to more tightly control what will be available on the Internet--to restrict the flow of "dangerous" information, to increase the security of banking transactions, to more easily reach every corporate and military outpost in the world. The system is being rapidly "privatized"--which means that all kinds of corporate "firewalls" will be used to screen information and access. New commercial "gates" are already being set up--where people will need to identify themselves and pay digital money to move from one part of the Internet to another.
As the Internet becomes more important in ordinary business dealings, reactionary governments are exploring new ways to remain open to imperialism's economic penetration, while maintaining tight control over the political activity of Internet users in their countries. For example China's counterrevolutionary government is pioneering an "intranet" operating within China that will then be hooked up to the international Internet in tightly controlled ways. "There will be nothing illegal on the network so censorship will not be a problem," said Joyce Wong, vice president of China Internet Corp.
In the first half of this century, U.S. capitalists hired armies of workers to lay railroad lines for the first time in Central America--connecting the rural interiors to the "outside world."
Such new connections served the capitalists. Honduras, for example, did not get a transportation system that united the country and its economy. Instead, the railroads led straight from banana plantations to the harbors along the coast--so the United Fruit Company could quickly move fruit to the world market. And Honduras' capital Tegucigalpa was completely bypassed by those new rail lines and remained without rail connection to the coast or the country's plantation areas. That's how imperialist development works.
A similar, updated version of this same process marks the structure, use, content and growth of the Internet. Like the Yankee railroads once penetrated rural Honduras--the Internet is linking key economic sectors, key research institutions and key strata throughout the world more and more closely to the United States and other imperialist countries--and to the corporations and militaries of those imperialist countries.
Many people, including supporters of the RCP, are righteously working to use openings on the Internet to serve the people. But overall, the capitalist/imperialist system is twisting such new communications systems to serve its class interests--creating an Internet that reflects and reinforces all the intense and criminal inequalities of today's capitalist world market.
The Internet has caused many people to dream about worldwide communications between people--breaking down barriers of nation and class. We invite you to dream about this: Let's get rid of this capitalist system that perverts everything it touches and shapes the technologies under its control into new means of oppression and exploitation.