Business as Usual
One of the big media stories of this past summer was the release of the joint Google/Verizon “legislative framework” for the future of net neutrality. The agreement mapped out one possible solution to the regulatory and technical issues grouped together as the debate over net neutrality. Google made clear that it would continue to be committed to keeping the ‘public internet’ a place where everybody’s communication stood on an even playing field (at least when it came to the handling of internet traffic.) But, of course, talking about the ‘public internet’ only confirmed that the endgame was the development of a ‘private internet.’ This other Internet would be the domain of ‘additional online services’ (video delivery services, health information, etc.) along with all network activity that involved wireless networks.
For some, the statement marked the final step in the company’s betrayal of their slogan: “Don’t be Evil.” Google was selling out and, worse, it was selling us out too. Commenting on the confusion and betrayal felt by many Google users in a recent blogpost, David Weinberger writes “what’s confusing about Google is that it feels so much like it is ours — for us, like us, of us. It is not just another entity in our ecology but is an important enabler of it. But, we also know that it’s a corporation out to make money. We don’t know how to make sense of this so long as we hold both sides of what, traditionally, would be a paradox.”
At the same time that people were gnashing teeth over the Google/Verizon announcement, RIM was dealing with a series of investigations into its Blackberry messaging services. India, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE raised concerns that these messages could be a threat to national security because they are not transmitted using the public networks (open to state monitoring), but through one of two data centers located in Canada and the UK. These were portrayed as possibly excessive privacy versus security issues (downplaying that the US and UK had recently received similar oversight.)
It’s worthwhile thinking about the Blackberry investigations and Google/Verizon in connection with each another because they tell us a lot about trends in information policy and practice. In many ways, Blackberry is already running on a ‘private internet.’ Users pay for access, and they get secure access to the network. Of course, more than messaging services would be offered if the Google/Verizon framework were to be adopted. But it is worth recognizing that the public/private Internet is already being obsessed over by Blackberry addicts around the globe. RIM’s response to the government investigations is also worth consideration. In Saudi Arabia, Blackberry agreed to build a separate data centre that would handle the message traffic for the country that would be open to government inspection. It looks like a similar deal will be negotiated with India. If Google/Verizon was pushing towards a private Internet, the Blackberry case seemed to signify a push in the opposite direction.
Yet strangely, there is little comfort to be taken in the ‘victory’ over Blackberry and the assertion of the rights of a state over its communication infrastructure. Raising the problem of how much control any government should have over its media, it is what a recent article in The Economist described as a ‘virtual counter-revolution.’ Furthermore, it also touches on the fundamental problem of private Internet services. In the words of Robert Guerra from Freedom House, “RIM’s decision to capitulate so easily says that their corporate interests are most important. It’s all about business – they didn’t want to lose a market.”
Between anxiety over Google and concern about the security of Blackberry messages, we are able to fully grasp the paradox described by Weingold. If we do not know whether to accept or feel anxious about Google because of what it can do for us, we are often equally unsure about how the Internet should be regulated because such regulations feel personal rather than institutional.
Taking a step back, perhaps these recent developments do not simply extend the privatization of the Internet or the control of government over the virtual world. Instead, they mark the latest developments in a new understanding between governments and major media corporations about how the global flow of information will be managed. This understanding is neither oppositional nor laissez-faire, but regulation in exchange for market access and service. Some of this may seem paradoxical (like Google, scrambling the line between private interest and public good.) But these developments are neither wholly new nor paradoxical when viewed in context. It’s not about what we can do, but what others will do for us. It confirms that the Internet has already joined a long history of state-sanctioned quasi-monopolies in media. The mistake was thinking that the Internet was different.