7/06/2008

Free Speech on the Internets?

This article is worth taking a look at. It's a bit lengthy, but it covers a number of different dimensions of a highly complex problem.

I won't speak to all of it, but I'd like to focus on one particular issue:

Companies in charge of seemingly public spaces online wipe out content that's controversial but otherwise legal. Service providers write their own rules for users worldwide and set foreign policy when they cooperate with regimes like China. They serve as prosecutor, judge and jury in handling disputes behind closed doors.

The governmental role that companies play online is taking on greater importance as their services - from online hangouts to virtual repositories of photos and video - become more central to public discourse around the world. It's a fallout of the Internet's market-driven growth, but possible remedies, including government regulation, can be worse than the symptoms.


With the exception of the totally unsubstantiated claim that "government regulation" "can be worse", these paragraphs get to the heart of the issue I wish to consider, viz., the downsides of privatization.

Much in the way that an ant colony takes on a life of its own above and beyond those of its ants, corporations develop their own sets of survival instincts and quasi-desires. This is a metaphor, of course, but it does come very close to the truth.

An idea popped into my head just now, and I doubt it's entirely original, but I think it's worth sharing. Multinational corporations are like the modern instantiations of the ancient Greek and Roman gods. They are entities which ostensibly care about human well being, but which have their own interests which tend to take precedence and often have very little to do with what is good for human beings.

They share our world with us, but seem to occupy parts of it that ordinary mortals cannot access. They aren't omniscient or omnipotent, but their capabilities far exceed ours. And they are highly flawed, perhaps even more so than we are.

Similarly, there is a large but finite number of them, and a smaller number still of the most powerful ones. Thus, our options for loyalty end up somewhat limited.

This last point is crucial. Contrary to what free market proponents often suggest, corporate consolidation has left us with very few choices. Let's say that I run an open home network, and that my neighbors and their friends use it to download some copyrighted materials illicitly. If the RIAA and MPAA had their way, an ISP would have to cut off your access entirely if you received three accusations of illegal downloading. That's right, they don't even have to successfully prove anything; you merely have to be accused three times. One of your neighbors downloads the latest Metallica album, a second grabs a bootleg of the new Indiana Jones film, and a third pirates a copy of Photoshop and BOOM! no internet for you!

(If you think I'm making this stuff up, you should read BoingBoing more often... In any case, this is particularly unfortunate because it undermines human courtesy, discouraging people from sharing a resource that they don't fully consume. If not for factors like this, I probably would operate my home network without a password.)

In many areas of the country, broadband markets are monopolized, so your choice is: use this particular ISP, or stick with dial-up (if you can even do that; since in many cases the same company controls broadband and phone service, you might find yourself cut off entirely). If you're kicked off of your area's only ISP, you are shit out of luck.

I would probably die without the Internet. I wish I were kidding. Until recently, I lived alone (for nearly four years), and whenever my connection cut out I was both angry and panicked. The 'net allowed me some means of contact with other human beings, probably saving my sanity. It may be relatively new, but high-speed internet access is now, for many people, a need. (In fact, I think free wireless high-speed internet should be a human right, but that's for another post...)

Now, granted, state institutions and bureaucracies exhibit many of the same characteristics that large corporations do. This is especially so with non-democratic governments. In China's case, for instance, it's clear that government control can be a lot worse than having to deal with private corporations. (The author of our article above fails to make this case, leaving "government regulation" as a vague term that could apply to radically different regimes.)

The key difference, though, is accountability. Corporations are by and large highly undemocratic institutions, beholden only to making profit for their shareholders. Certainly this schema works quite well in a number of areas, but there are some in which it is entirely inappropriate, most notably when we are dealing with common goods.

So, for example, healthcare and other kinds of insurance are worth having insofar as they allow the pooling of risk. The profit motive totally undermines this; huge amounts of time and money are spent not to cover particular expenses and companies try to offer insurance only to those who don't need it. It's highly inefficient, which partly explains why Americans pay more for healthcare than anyone else, even though its quality of care is comparable, and sometimes worse, than that of other industrialized nations.

A second example is in the cultural sphere, in art and music. Back before today's oppressive copyright regime, artists frequently borrowed images and ideas from their predecessors and contemporaries. Today, you can't even use a 5 second sample from a song without permission. (In fact, according to the AP's idiotic new policy, I shouldn't be able to post quotations from their articles any longer than 5 words, without paying for it. Perhaps I should just split up those two paragraphs into a series of 4-word quotes...) This has driven certain genres of music that depend on practices of sampling and remixing underground. Everyone loses as a consequence (except the huge media conglomerates--who for some reason seem very reluctant to share their ill-gotten gains from suing their customers with the artists they are purportedly protecting).

A third case, the last I'll consider, involves infrastructure. Only the most diehard/insane libertarian wants to privatize the roads. Nevertheless, much of the US infrastructure is crumbling because of moves toward privatization in the past few decades; there's little profit to be had in making sure bridges are safe. So why is it that when it comes to the Internet, the aptly named "information superhighway", that we run almost entirely on privately-owned toll roads?

The fall of Communism as a realistic alternative to Capitalism does not mean that the latter is the best we can do. We should use markets in the places where they are most effective, but not shy away from trying out other models when they are not. If the concern is that governments are inefficient or incompetent, we can always rely on local experimentalism. (Remember "states' rights"? Neither do I...) If a state institution is not producing the effects it is supposed to, you scrap it and try something else.

But even when we do rely on markets, we need to keep corporations in check. They will maximize profits by whatever means they can get away with. (That's not a statement about "evil CEOs" but rather about the nature of the system, and the ways it promotes some kinds of behavior over others.) It's the state's job to set the rules and enforce them so that corporate interests don't trump human ones.

Why is that so difficult for some people to swallow? I don't understand how you can be totally distrustful of one large set of institutions (government) and totally trusting of another (the market). (I mean, at least most first world governments are ostensibly democratic.) As with any powerful entities, we should set them up in opposition to each other to ensure that none becomes too strong. But instead, we get them colluding while most citizens are too fat and entertained to really care.

(Hmmm... This is not the most coherent post I've ever written. I need to refine some of these thoughts, but I might as well publish it as is for now.)

1 comment:

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