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AOL's Case smartens up the road show

Not-so-silver-tongued devil woos Congress...sort of

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America Online Chairman Steve Case took pains to tell the Senate Judiciary Committee every platitude ever written about the wonders of the Internet as they convened this week to consider the proposed merger of AOL with media giant Time Warner.

He waxed poetic on the education of our tender sprouts. "Today, a student in Alaska or Alabama can visit the Library of Congress online, and so can a young person in Ankara." Well yes, they could do that. They could also waste gargantuan chunks of time chatting in ICQ and downloading pornography, music and warez. Odds, anyone?

But Case pressed on. "Building a medium we can be proud of has always been core to the vision at AOL," he said. "That means empowering people by giving them a voice, and greater choice." "It means connecting people in meaningful ways to their government, and helping them to give back to their communities. It means enhancing educational opportunities for children. It means expanding its reach and its benefits to every corner of the world, leaving no community, and no country, behind."

At this point we observed Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (Republican, Utah) visibly struggling to remain awake. All right, however beautifully written it may have been, Case's speech didn't quite hit its mark. Part of it was his monotonous delivery, but the greater part is rooted in the Committee's overall fatigue with the bright promises of mega-corporations.

"The most significant danger to the promise of the Internet," Chairman Hatch observed, "is the possibility that a handful of companies could control who can access or deliver applications, or content."

He was similarly underwhelmed with the memo of understanding between Case and Time Warner Chairman Gerald Levin, announced just hours before the hearing, and pledging to open Time Warner's cable network to other ISPs, and to guarantee choice of ISP to consumers of the combined company's cable service.

"The first paragraph of this promotional document makes it clear that the document is not binding," Hatch observed dryly. Furthermore, it was developed "without input from...the parties it professes to be championing," he added. Hatch wondered aloud how an agreement which can't be enforced could be taken for more than a marketing gimmick.

Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (Democrat, Vermont) noted that after merging, the potential for cross-exploitation of the two companies' respective markets could be too much temptation to resist. It would not be much of a challenge to "push the television content through the AOL gateway, and the AOL content through the television screen," Leahy said in a tone which could have been taken as scornful.

But Case stayed cheerfully on message. He spoke of "a broad and powerful vision that will forever alter our lives." Noting that the Internet now reaches a scant forty percent of American households, he invited us all to "imagine what we will achieve when we reach every country, every community, every business, every family."

We accepted Case's invitation, closed our eyes, engaged our imaginations, and within minutes found ourselves palpably disgusted. Perhaps Hatch and Leahy did the same, with similar reactions. ®

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