From Free Markets to Free Internets (Disassembled Spaces)

disassembled spaces

(cross post with FLEFF’s Dissassembled Spaces blog)

Most people assume that if you Google something in the US and you do the same in another country, you will get the same results. It’s called the World Wide Web, right? Not so. Countries can and do exert influence on search engine companies to control the results that their citizens can access. Which is why there’s been a lot of talk recently about whether Google will pull out of China. Apparently, the Internet giant whose code of conduct is “Don’t be evil” has finally gotten tired of the Chinese Communist Party stipulating the kind of search results it can or cannot provide. Competing for a share of one of the world’s largest markets is good and well, but after it was revealed that the attacks that compromised the private information of thousands of Google users came from China, the company decided that enough was enough. Although no final decision has been made, the mere mention that Google was considering leaving China was major news.

In the West, the move has been celebrated as a slap in the face of internet censorship. At the same time, there have been concerns that the withdrawal of Google from the Chinese market will make things worse for people there. The assumption is that Google’s services do provide a little bit of freedom inside the great firewall of China (one theory behind the cause of the cyber attacks on Google is that the Chinese government was interested in spying on dissidents’ Gmail accounts). This would seem to suggest, to put it plainly, that Google and the rest of the big Web companies are important tools in the struggle to spread freedom and democracy in China and elsewhere in the world (recall the recent hubbub about Twitter saving Iran, Facebook liberating Moldova, etc.).

To build momentum for this idea, Google’s announcement was followed a couple of days later by a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The topic was Internet Freedom. Because of its importance in facilitating communication and dialogue across various divides, Secretary Clinton argued that the US government is interested in ensuring that the Internet remains Free. “We stand for a single Internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas,” she said.

But what does this “single Internet” that the US government is interested in promoting look like? We need to take a closer look and ask questions. Simply sticking the word Free in front of something and saying it’s good for world democracy is not enough. Remember a little something called the Free Market? Just as that particular contraption was an important instrument in creating more global inequality, my fear is that the Free Internet –as envisioned by corporations and promoted by the US– will only allow the rich to get richer.

For one thing, is the US in a position to champion freedoms it itself is not willing to respect? During her speech, Clinton remarked: “As it stands, Americans can consider information presented by foreign governments. We do not block your attempts to communicate with the people in the United States. But citizens in societies that practice censorship lack exposure to outside views.” So what about the role of the US in preventing people in those countries from being exposed to certain views? I guess the Secretary of State had not been briefed on a recent bill approved by Congress that imposes sanctions on Arab satellite channels deemed hostile to the United States. If you want to block people from tuning in to the Hezbollah channel, at least don’t pretend that you are above using censorship to achieve your political ends.

Besides, does anyone really believe that ever-expanding corporate conglomerates are the best champions of democracy? Global capitalism’s track record seems to suggest otherwise. Just ask the people of the world what companies like Union Carbide, Dow, Shell, United Fruit, DuPont, Monsanto and so on and so on have done for their democracies. Given that history, companies that believe in Not Being Evil represent a complete and welcomed change, but I’m still not convinced that we should completely surrender our online public spaces and cultural products to corporations, specially when those spaces and products are important platforms for challenging authority. Secretary Clinton herself said that “…the internet can help humanity push back against those who promote violence and crime and extremism. In Iran and Moldova and other countries, online organizing has been a critical tool for advancing democracy and enabling citizens to protest suspicious election results.” But as Evgeny Morozov argues, the losses in online privacy that come from using “free” corporate-controlled social media tools may not be worth the gains in online mobilization.

Just don’t tell that to the State Department. At a 2009 Alliance of Youth Movements summit in Mexico City, where the supposed goal was to figure out ways to reduce drug-related violence, the co-sponsors (along with the US State Department) included Facebook, MySpace (owned by Rupert Murdoch), Google, YouTube, Pepsi and MTV. One doesn’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to feel a bit troubled by what seemed like the perfect marriage of US foreign policy and for-profit interests, cloaked in the language of liberal democracy and its purported promotion of human rights and freedom. In an age when social network analysis is becoming an increasingly important tool for securing the homeland, what better way to keep an eye on the ‘volatile’ youth of the developing world than to have them voluntarily fill out detailed profiles of themselves and their friends? And if they can do that while drinking AMP Energy and watching Jersey Shore, so much the better, it seems.

Resources:

Authority, Meet Technology: Slate/New America Foundation discussion about China, Google, and Internet freedom.
http://www.slate.com/id/2241755/workarea/3/

Arab ministers slam US congress satellite decision
http://blogs.rnw.nl/medianetwork/arab-ministers-slam-us-congress-satellite-decision

Clinton urges Internet freedom, condemns cyber attacks
http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE60K1V220100121?type=technologyNews

Hillary Rodham Clinton, Remarks on Internet Freedom
http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2010/01/135519.htm

Evgeny Morozov, Testimony to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
http://www.csce.gov/index.cfm?Fuseaction=Files.Download&FileStore_id=1526

Privacy May Be a Victim in Cyberdefense Plan
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/13/us/politics/13cyber.html?_r=1

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