Throughout its history, much has been made of the Internet’s promise of emancipation. Celebrants the world over claimed, and continue to claim, that the Internet and the web will empower citizens to topple oppressive regimes, expose fraud and waste, and push back against corporate greed and monopoly.
Yet, this promise has yet to materialize. The role of the web, social media in particular, in recent revolutions is celebrated widely in the mainstream media. Yet, upon closer examination, social media seems marginal in its influence. In some cases, such as Egypt, it was actively co-opted by the regime to track and arrest dissidents—all with equipment and software supplied by Western corporations; contrary to trade sanctions. This is hardly surprising when one considers the short arc of Internet history.
Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Skype—these services are often spoken in the same breath as non-governmental organizations and humanitarian civil societies. Yet there is a key difference: they are owned wholly by very large, profit-centric, American-headquartered corporations. They are required to pursue a course of action in the best interests of their shareholders, which are assuredly not the poor and under-represented.
Less recognizable names, such as CenturyLink, Level 3, and Cogent, are no less important to how the Internet works. These are the Tier 1 network—wholly private enterprises that own the backbone, utterly essential infrastructure of the web. Having built the infrastructure, which includes large urban hub-stations, undersea cables, and interchange points between providers, the government handed over management to wholly private, for-profit enterprises.
Telecommunication companies and cable providers, with government-guaranteed monopolies (some nearly a century old), provide the “last mile” connectivity to consumers at massively inflated prices. End-to-end, the Internet and the web are controlled by capitalist enterprises. A particular sort of oligopolistic, price-fixing capitalism pervades the information technology industry, especially media and service providers, due in part to the winner-take-all network economics of the industry, unfettered by regulatory intervention.
The exceptions put the norm of the capitalist Internet into stark relief. For example, Wikipedia, open-source, and Creative Commons communities provide virtually unadulterated public goods. Even these, however, are not obviously counter-capitalist—open source software forms the underpinnings of practically every major web firm in existence.
Add to this the massive, publicly funded research efforts required to develop the core technologies. That, co-mingled with the protection from competition afforded by overreaching patents, and harmonized internationally through World Intellectual Property Organization, makes the public subsidy for the Internet perhaps the greatest ever known, for any invention. Yet, the mythology remains that the enterprise of the private sector made the Internet possible.
The same corporations that benefit from an egalitarian, open Internet are, for the most part, hell-bent on repealing whatever civic protection the Internet has. For example, in the U.S., in 2002, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that cable companies do not have to comply with “common carrier” regulations. Then provisions for telephone companies were soon repealed—a decision upheld by the Supreme Court in NCTA vs. Brand X, resulting in the collapse of the broadband Internet service provider market to a tiny handful of extremely profitable companies.
The story is the same for mobile data services and the auctioning of wireless spectrum. Both the U.S. and Canada share the same market dynamics. These regulatory choices were made mostly without public consultation or awareness. The only real public controversies emerge when capitalist interests conflict, such as Google flexing its lobbying muscle to stop SOPA/PIPA (Stop Online Piracy and Protect IP acts) in 2012, so it could retain its dominant position in search and the value of YouTube.
When corporate interests press against the public good with no competing corporate concern, regulatory silence and compliance with corporate interest set in. Consider the monumental efforts required to stop Bell Canada from implementing usage-based billing. A facially unfair measure that barely warranted consideration was very nearly approved by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, which is increasingly a rubber-stamp institution for Canada’s dominant media enterprises. This inequity in revenues would be bad enough, but the web has had a corrosive effect on our culture, an effect that generates rent for the big players.
The currency of the web, without which there would be no Google or Facebook or virtually any other social network, is advertising. Advertising on the web is not merely the bringing together of potential customers with products, but the commodification of our entire personal lives as avenues for marketing—the taking of memories, ideas, correspondences, and converting them to leads, clicks, and keywords valued at fractions of a penny.
Our identities, as they are siphoned up by social networks and web services, are capital exploited for profit. Twitter is not a public forum; it is a shopping mall—a place for users to be surveilled, sold, and sold to. Let’s be clear about the nature of this type of advertising; this is not the benign suggestion of useful goods, which is a service amply provided by websites like Consumer Reports or CNet and countless enterprising bloggers and vloggers. Modern advertising is the incessant barrage of emotionally manipulative symbols to induce us to consume, and the conflation of lifestyle with consumption habits. Advertising is, for the most part, the only way corporate capitalism can function—if genuine desire or necessity drove sales, many firms would simply go out of business. The web is an unending gusher of this media, and it shows no sign of slowing down.
The rise of the Internet was heralded as a golden-age of consumer and citizen empowerment. While the Internet is still in its early days, capitalist globalization has moulded the structures of the privately controlled, publicly consumed Internet.