Saturday, December 25, 2010

Zeynep Tufekci on Wikileaks, the "Tax on DIssent" and the Internet as Privatized Public Space

Via the same Zunguzungu link roundup I got yesterday's quote from, here is Zeynep Tufekci on the lesson of L'affaire Wikileaks:
...the main lessons of the Wikileaks affair: the increasing control of (relatively) unaccountable corporations and states over the key components of the Internet, and their increased willingness to use this control in politicized ways to impose a "dissent tax" on content they find objectionable. Ability to disseminate one's ideas on the Internet is now a sine qua non of inclusion in the global public sphere. However, the Internet is not a true public sphere; it is a public sphere erected on private property, what I have dubbed a "quasi-public sphere," where the property owners can sideline and constrain dissent....

During these past weeks, rather than a nerd takeover, I saw the crumbling of the facade of a flat, equal, open Internet and the revelation of an Internet which has corporate power occupying its key crossroads, ever-so-sensitive to any whiff of displeasure by the state. I saw an Internet in danger of becoming merely an interactive version of the television in terms of effective freedom of speech. Remember, the Internet did not create freedom of speech; in theory, we always had freedom of speech--it's just that it often went along with the freedom to be ignored. People had no access to the infrastructure to be heard. Until the Internet, the right to be heard was in most cases reserved to the governments, deep pockets, and corporate media. Before the Internet, trees fell in lonely forests.

The Wikileaks furor shows us that these institutions of power are slowly and surely taking control of the key junctures of the Internet. As a mere "quasi-public sphere," the Internet is somewhat akin to shopping malls, which seem like public spaces but in which the rights of citizens are restricted, as they are in fact private. If you think the freedom of the Internet could never be taken back, I implore you to read the history of radio. Technologies that start out as peer-to-peer and citizen-driven can be and have been taken over by corporate and state power.
And then, via one of the links in the very excerpt reprinted above, here is Zeynep Tufekci with more about the internet as a public sphere on private property, and the limits that entails:
The answer cannot be: well, people who are unhappy shouldn’t use those services. Presence on the Internet is effectively a requirement for fully and effectively participating in the 21st century as a citizen, as a consumer, as an informed person and as a social being. Further, many such services are natural monopolies: Google, Ebay, Facebook, Amazon, all benefit greatly from network externalities which means that the more people on the service, the more useful it is for everyone. This makes it very hard for a market leader to be challenged. (Wikipedia is also such a natural monopoly but it is not corporate controlled).

Facebook or Google are optional in the sense that electricity, telephone, modern medicine are optional. Don’t like the medical establishment? Don’t use antibiotics! Don’t like how deregulated electricity markets are run? Well, don’t use electricity! Hey, solar panels are available. Telling people to opt-out of major streams of sociality, information and markets on the Internet makes almost as much sense. While I’ll readily concede the urgency of antibiotics differs from the urgency of social interaction, sociality is a fundamental part of being. It is not optional. It is not a coincidence that solitary confinement is the most severe legal punishment –short of the death penalty—that is legally imposed on people.

The next argument is: well, use an alternative service! That too is as valid as telling people to use a different cable company or an electric utility if they don’t like the current one. In most markets, there is only one or two such utilities, and for good reason. The investment in laying cables and connecting doors is large enough that most markets cannot support multiple, truly alternative services. Similarly, especially in the lives of young people, Facebook acts like a phone directory used to and opting out of Facebook during college would significantly constrain social options for many. Facebook has become de facto social commons, especially in college but now has spread to other cohorts. It takes effort to maintain a profile and people are unlikely to duplicate that effort in multiple services the same way multiple electric companies don’t put down parallel cables to each neighbor to compete with each other. Google is such an environment for searching and for many people who do not have an institutionally-supplied email account they can freely use for personal matters, Gmail makes a lot of sense.
Both articles flesh out the ideas these excerpts are from; click through if the quoted bits interest you.

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