The Commercialisation of the Internet and the Erosion of Free Speech

Jenny Marsh—05/2009
The internet is Free Speech's greatest exponent in modern times, and yet, as a society, we are allowing big business to take control of it, a process that is eroding the expression and very definition of free speech.

CONTROL INFORMATION AND YOU CONTROL PEOPLE. For our actions arise primarily from our perception of our social and physical environment — the context in which we live our lives — and that perception is powerfully influenced by the mass media (even our upbringing can be modified by new perceptions — its called brainwashing).

In 1989 a revolution started: the World Wide Web was born — the brainchild of CERN scientist Tim Berners-Lee, although of course there were many other brilliant minds involved in its inception. The Web basically gave public access to the power of networked computers — The Internet — and since public networking became freely available in 1993 growth has been exponential, with an estimated 1.58 billion of the Earth's population now using it in 2008 alone. Today, that translates to approximately three quarters of Americans and up to half of Europeans (70% in the UK). Without a doubt the Internet has become almost as ubiquitous as television, a luxury that has morphed into an essential service in the eyes of the majority of people. In fact, the growth rate of the Internet far surpasses that of television in the last century.

Televisions sit in the corner of almost every home and form the centre of indoor social inactivity. People hypnotically stare at their TV screens for hours on end, day in and day out, willingly allowing the images and sounds of the program-masters and advertisers to wash their minds with a heady mixture of propaganda, most of it subliminal. Lets face it, television programming is, in reality, the science of persuasion, and it serves two masters: big business that funds it through advertising various products and services; and the agendas of its owners (whether they be corporate or government). Television has been the primary means of people control for many decades, far surpassing the influence of newspapers due to its ability to evoke a more visceral/emotive propaganda response with its combination of moving images, music, symbols and storylines. And now it is being challenged for that top spot by the internet.

The internet, as we know it today, has six remarkable benefits that sets it apart from traditional television:

  1. Rather than being a passive medium like TV in which the audience is merely an observer, the internet user is largely and increasingly back into the picture, actively interacting with information and with other users. This makes it as much a communication device as a means to access information.
  2. The internet was invented by an academic with little regard to its commercial potential, and so its information handling is essentially democratic and does not favour the big players — the data packets of a humble blog has equal information processing and availability rights as those from the website of a billion dollar corporation or government department. The is called the principle of Network Neutrality or Net Neutrality. (The mass media corporations and other big business sectors were caught napping when the Net started, and they have been playing catch-up ever since.)
  3. Production and presentation costs for putting information online is minuscule compared to that of presenting it through television. In fact, a blog, social profile and networking, emails and small website are essentially free, once you have web access (which itself is free in many places).
  4. The internet accumulates information whereas television is limited to what it can transmit or broadcast in the moment. (This is changing as TV technology becomes more network based.)
  5. A combination of all the others means that there is orders of magnitude more choice on the internet than there is on television, although it has to be said that most people use just a small set of internet sites like google, facebook, itunes, youtube, blogger, wikipedia etc.).

These five factors together triggered the explosion of the internet in modern society, creating a medium of exchange that promoted the democratisation of information, shifting some of the power of information from the mass media back into the hands of the people, mostly, until more recently, those that are more educated and computer-savvy. (And it has also accelerated the interactivity of television which realized quickly that if it didn't evolve into something similar, it would be eclipsed by the net, so television and internet technologies are starting to converge.

All this rapidly changing, however, as the internet is increasingly moving towards a sales and mass-media tool, and further away from its original quirky public service and free information exchange profile. With e-commerce spending at an estimated $6.8 trillion (15% of global GDP), it comes as no surprise at all that big business is muscling in and taking control of this lucrative and influential system.

Whilst the internet sites offered by big business become more attractive to the consumer, taking a larger and larger share of the internet market, this in itself is not directly challenging Net Neutrality. That challenge is coming from the telecommunications companies that hook up their customers to the net in the first place.

Telecom companies realized that the future of the internet was bypassing them, and that by acting "merely" as conduits to the internet for customers, inadvertently following the principle of net neutrality, they were missing out on commercially capitalizing on the commercial growth of the Internet. Their money is primarily made from phone calls, cable TV subscriptions, telephone line rental and the ISP internet subscriptions (or a percentage thereof if the service is subcontracted). As the latter two are fixed costs, and as phone call profits are dramatically falling with increased competition from internet communication services and mobile phones, the outlook for these companies, in commercial growth terms, has not been as rosy as they would like.

The solution that the telecommunications industry has come up with is for them to stop acting merely as Internet data conduits and start filtering content. In other words, by discarding the ideal of "network neutrality" and charging for access to their customer network (acting as a gatekeeper), they would be back in the driving seat after a two decade white-knuckled passenger ride, and at last would be able to claim a healthy slice of the Internet profits pie. Their proposal is similar to the system currently used within the Cable TV industry whereby program channels are either prepackaged in the monthly subscription — its operators paying for default access — or are available at extra cost — the consumer paying for additional access. With TV you can either get a channel or you can't, but with the internet there is the added control variable of varying the speed/priority of data delivery. So availability and data priority can be manipulated using a data tier system to maximize return.

With this gatekeeper system in place, only larger global corporations (a few thousand at most) could afford to subsidize end-user access to their online services and so only their particular websites/services would be free to access for standard-subscription subscribers. The cost of access to non-subsidized websites (which would be the whole internet apart from these few thousand sites) would either be passed on to the internet customer in the form of an extra subscription, or these sites would be relegated to the "slow-lane" non-essential traffic. As most would not want to pay extra for wider cyber-reach, and as "slow-lane" traffic becomes increasingly unpopular due to its speed (which will further deteriorate as there is some indication that the gatekeeper companies no longer wish to maintain and update the older egalitarian network systems that compete with their new controlled systems), this would effectively end the internet as we know it, turning it into a private service similar to cable/satellite TV.

If this happens on a wide scale, as some of the major players in the telecom industry are planning, the internet will end up in the hands of big business which will use it as a mass-marketing tool, like television, to influence the general public. And the whole buzz of the internet as a free exchange of ideas and expression will be morphed into the slick presentation of entertainment, infomercials, advert listings and banner ads — a colourful cardboard cutout of the internet as we know it today. Free speech will still be there of course, but squeezed into the egocentric micro-blog format, cloud-services that effectively cloud important issues by presenting them within a large one-size-fits-all commercial frame — "save the planet" tweets the blogger beside pictures from her latest party, her message displayed beside a flash banner for McDonalds.

How quickly this commercialisation will infect the entire internet is anyone's guess. Some say that it could be as soon as 2010 whereas others think it is a few more years down the road. But what everyone seems to agree with (everyone that is without an interest in media control) is that this process has begun, and that unless we make a concerted effort to change direction and protect what we have, it is inevitable that it will damage the expression of free speech and ideological diversity.

More radically, there are plans afoot to build a new Internet from scratch, which would allow big business to control the entire network. This is the ideal for those who wish to use the Internet completely for their own ends, but it is a long way off as it will take time to build the necessary complexity and size in order for it to compete with the current Internet. What we are likely to see in the near future is small enclaves of private networks servicing particular sets of customers, and online services such as email and other applications charging for preferential data movement. Even Google is reportedly wanting preferential data transfer for the services it offers, and whilst that will undoubtedly improve those services, in the bigger picture this would be just be another nail in the net neutrality coffin.

Of course, you cannot beret industry for wanting to make more profit at the expense of free speech and free choice — that is just the nature of capitalism. It should, however, be the nature of democratic governments, in the interest of the people who elect them, to make sure that free speech and the main avenues of its expression are protected when they are compromised by corporate interests. Unfortunately, this happens less and less as governments become increasingly corporatized, with ex-politicians often found on the boards of major corporations in repayment of services rendered during office. (Corruption in the democratic system is inevitable as long as politicians and corporations form intimate relationships as they do; allowing special interest groups such as big business to influence politicians with their armies of full-time lobbyists dangerously erodes democracy.)

Naturally, governments in league with big business but trying to appear democratic cannot push for control of the internet without justifying it in some way to the general population. And they do this by citing the need for "security" — in the same way that they use security to justify most of their heinous activities. (This works a treat in a fear-based society psychologically conditioned by a scaremongering mass media.) This is a good cover in this case because what has made the internet so great — its freedom, its democratic processing of data and its open networks — has also been its Achilles Heal. The internet was originally developed and set up by academics and was based around a level of users' trust and responsibility, its open system structure making it vulnerable to abuse. That wasn't a problem when it was contained in the academic community, but as it expanded past those walls, the system found itself open to many different types of irresponsible use such as hacking, spam, illegal pornography, phishing sites, scams and various types of malicious code, to name but a few. And like any communication device, it is used extensively to organize all sorts of criminal activity — just as the mobile phone is.

However, just because free speech and easy communication present security issues, anyone with a modicum of insight would know that the potential dangers of passing control of the internet to the government/big business is far more concerning. Democracy needs the internet in order to survive the radical corporatization of government and society, but who is looking out for democracy? The general public foolishly entrust that job to their "elected" leaders, and the leaders, whilst paying lip-service to the protection of democracy, sacrifice it to for their personal ambitions and monetary gain. The only people who are really looking after democracy seem to be those brave enough to protest (despite police brutality), and civil rights organisations and their hired lawyers. Everyone else is assuming that it is someone else's job, or that it can be taken for granted in so called democracies — a terrible mistake, as Germany found to its cost in the 1930s. (Democracies can morph into more controlling types of government quite easily during times of crisis.)

The other problem is that the content of free speech in the 21st Century is becoming increasingly egocentric, rather than focusing on society, human rights, the abuses of power and the maintenance of democratic systems — issues that will, in the long run, have far more impact on a person's life than the expression of that individual's music taste etc. Free speech, the tool that can bring down governments and change the course of history when actually used to its full potential, has been reduced, in the public imagination, to the the the freedom to express vapid personal tastes, with serious issues relegated ever increasingly to rant websites which are so extreme in their outlook that they preach only to the converted. When the telecom companies start filtering content, it is precisely the me-centric sites which will increasingly dominate, and the internet as a tool for change will become the latest high-tech means to manipulate populations; important issues and concerns will be caught in a web of triviality.

And there is also an ecological consideration that will have some impact on the future of the internet, and that is its carbon footprint. It is estimated that he carbon dioxide emissions from the electricity generation used in running all the computers comprising the Internet is around 2 per cent of all human CO2 production (by comparison the whole aviation industry is responsible for an estimated 4%), and this carbon footprint size is expected to grow substantially in the next few years. (Google estimate that a single search uses electricity that produced 200 milligrams of CO2.) That said, time spent on the internet is usually time spent not-driving or not-flying around so this could off-set some of the ecological impact. But it would be true to say that the ecological impact of the internet could one day be a factor used to justify its control, to justify it being whittled down to more "essential" (money-making) services.

But the thing about new perspectives is that they have a huge impact on the human psyche. The picture of Earth that the Apollo astronauts took from space, for example, changed humanity forever, showing us directly the finiteness and fragility of this blue-green globe. And in the same way, the Internet has placed into the public imagination a true understanding of the free interchange of information and knowledge. Once we have had that level of free information exchange, any retraction of those freedoms is going to be keenly felt and sorely missed. Unless, of course, those restricting our online expression, for whatever reason, wean us off very gradually, and/or morph our very concept of what free speech is, so we end up being fooled into thinking we still have it when in fact we only have a semblance of it.

In the end we have to remember that information itself is a commodity. In a democracy, it is the most important commodity (in other forms of government the barrel of a gun works just as well). And as a commodity, it was only ever a matter of time before its free-flow on the computer networks caught the eye of big business. It would be nice to think that our modern societies still have the serious regard for free speech necessary to prevent the over-commercialisation of its greatest exponent — the internet — but unfortunately, free speech is invariably taken for granted by those living in societies labeled "democracies" and it is not being sufficiently defended.

Until that changes, the future of the internet as a medium of free speech is in peril, and we may look back at this time as a window of opportunity for using the net to foster real world change before the doors of commercialisation slam it shut, and we find ourselves drowning in a sea of advertisements, corporate propaganda, banality, narcissism, sensationalism, product reviews, sports results and celebrity gossip — the only tolerated expressions of online free speech.