Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Communication: Responsibility or Commodity?

One of the things that Hanson discusses in Chapter 3 different media systems across the globe (which we also learned about in earlier readings). Hanson quotes Dizard who said that in most of the world telecommunications systems were considered "a government responsibility, not a market commodity". Most countries had some form of nationalized or government monopolized telecommunications systems comprising, post, telegraph, and telephone services (PTT). However in the US the postal service was public and telegraph and telephone service was monopolized by AT&T until the 1980's. So the United States made the telecommunications sector a market commodity. We've seen this trend continued with some countries having nationalized news networks (BBC in the UK) and some having private networks only (obviously the US).
So what is communication? Does a government have a responsibility to provide an infrastructure of postal service, (previously) telegraph and telephone lines/service, and now even television and internet? Or should it all be bought and sold on the free market?
In the case of the US the overall postal service is government run (USPS), but it does have shipping competition from UPS, FedEx and other companies (mainly just for packages and special types of mail). In essence we have a mixed socialized and privatized postal system. In a country that seems so opposed to socialization (as seen in the recent health care debate) why have we allowed our postal service to remain government run? Surely the free market would create a more efficient system (who doesn't hate waiting at the post office?) with more competitive prices (44 cents to mail a letter 3,000 miles from New York to California? Outrageous!).
Now I haven't researched the post office history (I guess I'll have to visit that museum at the Smithsonian...), but it could be that the USPS remains because that's just the way it's always been and we're too lazy to change it. Or maybe, on some level we do believe that communication is a government responsibility (and maybe even a public right?) and not just a free market commodity. National communications is essential to the functioning of our modern society, without it pretty much nothing we have today would be possible.
Now I'm not saying that every communication system should be government run, maybe it would be better maybe not (is there really that much of a difference and need for so many telephone companies or internet providers?). Of course there are many concerns about state-run communications, such as censorship of the internet in China, which I'm against. However as I've said before I'm not a fan of huge transnational conglomerate corporations running communications either. There's a risk of censorship and bias there as well, take the recent case of certain books, already purchased, being removed from customers' Kindle devices by Amazon. While the government should in theory have the best interests of the people in mind, it often values its own interests more. Corporations aren't even ideally supposed to have the best interest of the consumer in mind, their goal is to maximize profits, so how can we trust them to give us the best technology/prices/service/information possible either? (Although I do acknowledge in theory they should keep customers happy to keep them, but how often do we hear of consumers getting screwed over by big companies?)
I don't have the answers to this debate. I'm not sure which, if either, of the systems would work better. Maybe everything should be like PBS with some government backing and public contributions (although that's unlikely to succeed). The central question seems to remain; is communication a responsibility of the government or a market commodity?

1 comment:

  1. This is a great question - and you even brought it one step further, could communication be a public right?

    After all, the Bill of Rights protects at least two components of communication: speech and the right of assembly. Could this be stretched to include online assembly and speech over phones or internet? It's a heady possibility.

    But what would that even mean? What the government seems to actually provide is an environment for these rights to 'flourish.' For instance, hospitals are more likely to be private than public. Utility companies are by and large privately owned. Newspapers and the like are viewed suspiciously if linked to the government. If those more basic components of 'care' are in the private sector, would a government-run cell phone plan or internet service stand a chance? (And yet, many libraries have computers you can use for free - that's government supported.)

    As to the postal service - I think originally this was because postal services were too large and global in nature for anything short of the government to handle. And since it's existed for centuries there was no sort of 'invention' or 'inventor' with rights to it or a desire/ability to commercialize until fairly recently.