The upcoming vote in Switzerland on public subsidies for the national television and radio raises fundamental questions about the concept of public service and the relationship between the internet and democracy. While the March 4 referendum only touches citizens’ payments to the Swiss broadcasting system, the underlying issues behind the vote are the diminishing relevance of the public sector and the rise of privatization through social media.
Does the public have the right to expect services from its government? More and more private companies do what henceforth was done by the public. Wealthy citizens in New York hire private security companies to patrol their neighborhoods. Richard Branson’s Virgin trains run on many of tracks in England. Private companies operate prisons throughout the United States. The current U.S. Secretary of Education is trying to encourage the competitive privatization of schools.
While public services may be inefficient and overly bureaucratic, there is an underlying societal function for promoting public service. Not only do I expect the government to give me something in return for my tax money, I, as a citizen, want to and should participate in the larger community. Privatization leads to communal disintegration. The more privatization takes place, the more those who can afford exclusive services will be separate from the public. Privatization is fundamentally undemocratic since it exacerbates the division between the haves and the have nots.
The idea of public education, for example, was to foster a basic level of education for all citizens. The better educated the public, the theory goes, the more democratic is the society. Public education in the United States was significantly promoted by Horace Mann when he was appointed secretary of the board of education of Massachusetts in 1837, the first such position in the United States. He believed there was a correlation between civic virtue and an educated public. There is no small irony that the Horace Mann School of New York, my alma mater, now costs $48,000 for basic fees. (It was considerably less when I attended, but I was the recipient of a generous scholarship.)
The internet was supposed to be a democratic enabler. Social media was to allow more and more information to be spread as well as empowering larger portions of society. While part of the initial optimism may still hold, the web domination by private companies has decreased democratic possibilities. Statistics show that most people read on the web what confirms their beliefs, increasing a tribal belonging while diminishing the possibilities to hear a variety of perspectives. The dominant role of Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon (GAFA) has overwhelmed any sense of information being a public good. So while the possibilities of social media as a democratic instrument remain, the consolidation of power by those who own the services is undemocratic.
(The counterargument is that state run media is obviously biased. But we are not talking about Pravda or Izvestia. The Swiss broadcasting system has enough independence to guarantee its objectivity. It is not directly controlled by Bern.)
The pattern of expanded privatization is not surprising. The private sector is traditionally the more innovative. The public sector reacts and tries to find ways to regulate innovations for the public good. Attempts to have some form of regulation for the web have been met with ferocious opposition by GAFA in the name of democracy and freedom of speech. Cybersecurity is but one piece of the larger puzzle about how independent social media can be.
The traditional time frame between innovation and regulation is not encouraging. Since the privatization era of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, the private has gotten way out in front. President Trump’s aggressive deregulation attacks, from the environment to finances, are part of a general trend. The public good has fewer and fewer champions.
The Swiss vote on public support for national television and radio reflects a populist era of privatization. It is another attempt to overwhelm civic virtue. Ironically, populists have taken up the banner to privatize the radio and television which will ultimately benefit wealthy conglomerates. As in numerous instances, what purports to be popular is essentially undemocratic.
There is much the public sector can do to improve. But that is not enough reason to reduce an essential element of communal sharing. The March 4 vote is a vote on democracy and the idea of public service and should be seen as such. Democratic values are being called into question throughout the world, even in Europe. That is why there is so much international interest in this vote. It would be ironic if the Swiss people democratically voted to reduce their democratic possibilities.