Corporate Super Sites Limit Web Diversity

It was only a few years ago, during the frontier days of the Internet, when passionate arguments raged over the impact advertising might have on the network's future.

Could an ad-supported Internet still develop into a democratic, multimedia communications medium for average citizens? Or would it end up as a giant, electronic strip-mall controlled by the corporate gatekeepers of traditional media?

The answer to both questions, at least in the summer of 2001, is still "yes." Yes, for millions of users, the Internet remains the only genuinely diverse electronic media that exists today. Anyone can create a Web site for little money, and freedom of speech still reigns for those who want to hear (or read) it.

And, yes, strip malls don't come much bigger. Capitalism in cyberspace blooms in all its neon glory, as commercial sites – dominated by corporate-owned multimedia content – become increasingly aggressive in pitching products and services.


Now, however, the balance of power is rapidly shifting in favor of big media. A new study has found that about half of all Internet users now spend their Web browsing time at only four sites. Three of those sites – AOL, MSN and Yahoo! – are dominated by content from major media outlets.

The fourth, Napster, is on quicksand. It's fast-losing visitors because of successful lawsuits to stop the very thing that made it popular – the sharing of music. Reversal of fortune comes swiftly on Internet time. Only two years ago, 11 Web sites shared half the Net users.

The study, by Jupiter Media Metrix, found a clear trend toward media consolidation on the Internet. Only 14 Web destinations control 60 percent of overall browsing time, down from 110 sites two years ago.

What's most interesting about this trend is how these large corporate sites are able to give the appearance of great diversity, while in reality funneling visitors toward their own proprietary content.


AOL has done this for years by consolidating its offerings within an easy-to-use, but closed application. However, the new AOL Time Warner conglomerate is upping the ante beyond the AOL subscriber base by turning its free Netscape browser into what's essentially a branded gateway to its own artists, publications and multimedia content.

"The browser is a crown jewel. However, six months from now, you won't consider Netscape to be a browser company," Netscape President Jim Bankoff told Reuters in a recent interview.

Netscape, under the ownership of AOL Time Warner, is destined to become a centralized hub for the corporation's expanding parade of media properties. A toolbar click can instantly take users to CNN, Time or Fortune magazines. Ditto for AOL Time Warner's movie trailers, music and books. To the unsophisticated user, the media choices might appear to be diverse. But, in truth, all the content comes from a single tightly integrated company.

Microsoft, not to be outdone by its arch competitor, is using an upcoming version of its market-leading Internet Explorer browser to subtly guide users to Microsoft's own Web sites and services. When recently revealed, the plan brought howls of protest.


The controversial feature – called Internet Explorer Smart Tags – inserts squiggly purple lines under certain words on a Web page. If the user places the cursor over the underlined word, an icon appears. If the icon is clicked, a small window opens to display links to Web sites offering more information. You guessed it: These linked Web sites are either owned, controlled or approved by the Microsoft Corporation.

Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal's influential technology columnist, strongly criticized the new feature after testing a beta version of the browser. "In effect, Microsoft will be able, through the browser, to re-edit anybody's site, without the owner's knowledge or permission, in a way that tempts users to leave and go to a Microsoft-chosen site – whether or not that site offers better information," Mossberg wrote.

"Microsoft's Internet Explorer Smart Tags are something new and dangerous," Mossberg continued. "They mean that the company that controls the Web browser is using that power to actually alter others' Web sites to its own advantage. Microsoft has a perfect right to sell services. But by using its dominant software to do so, it will be tilting the playing field and threatening editorial integrity."

The Smart Tags feature is not limited to Microsoft's new Web browser. It was recently introduced in the company's Office XP upgrade, and will be widely implemented in the Windows XP operating system, to be introduced in October.

If Microsoft chooses, it could sell Smart Tag links to third parties. Perhaps Compaq would purchase all links to the word "computer." Or Ford to the word "car." Or "Bush" to "Gore," should the need arise in the next couple of years.

As we went to press, Microsoft and AOL were still battling it out in negotiations over future AOL placement on the Windows desktop. But no matter what kind of pact the two giants negotiate on that issue, it will not diminish the ultimate goal of each company to become the dominant content vendor on the Internet.

Fortunately, for the media literate Net users who still value diversity, there will be third-party browsers that will enable the search of unbiased content. There will be ways to abort or monkey-wrench "Smart Tags." And there will be methods to protect one's personal privacy from unwanted commercial intrusion. It will just become more difficult – and therein lies the problem.

Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.