Business as Usual

September 8, 2010
By | 2 Comments

A man holds a homemade sign protesting GoogleOne 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.


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2 Responses to “ Business as Usual ”

  1. Danny Kimball on September 8, 2010 at 9:54 AM

    Thanks for this post– this is a really useful way to think about how these issues are related. Both of these “state-sanctioned quasi-monopolies” are definitely following in the long-standing pattern of closing down initially open media systems and the underlying issue in both cases is instituting a bottleneck via policy. The only difference between the two, though, is where the policymaking is getting done and who gets to play gatekeeper in the end: the state in the RIM case and a corporate oligopoly with the Google & Verizon deal. These are two different problems, related to the specific concentration of power in the particular context, but they’re certainly related and neither one is a very good deal for internet users, of course.

  2. Christopher Cwynar on September 8, 2010 at 11:36 AM

    This is an interesting post, Mark. I like the way that you sketch out the similarities between these two cases as a means of demonstrating how the Internet is following a developmental path that is similar to other media forms (as I see that Danny has adroitly pointed out). These pragmatic compromises by corporate interests and governments reveal that the dream of an open, global public Internet cannot be easily reconciled with these private Internets that seem to be emerging at an increasing rate.

    At the same time, the idealistic (even utopian at times) notions behind various conceptions of the Internet die hard. Weinberger’s comments reflect this. He does not want to conceive of Google as merely another corporation that will do anything to accomplish its primary function, which is to generate returns for its shareholders. It seems to me that the ideological orientations of these major players become more important. What is Google? Is it sincere in its efforts to achieve a compromise between these two Internet models and, if so, can these efforts yield significant results? By significant, I refer to both the fate of the Internet(s) and the form of corporate culture modeled by what is arguably the most important corporate entity operating today. If Google can practice and sustain a more compassionate and multi-faceted form of corporate activity, it may be able to affect the way that various capitalist actors conceive of their endeavors. Were that to occur, it might be more meaningful than the company’s efforts to shape the development of the Internet (not that the two can be separated).

    Then again, when I read this post over, it feels hopelessly idealistic to me. Perhaps, I have developed something of a soft spot for the more optimistic visions of the Internet’s potential. Perhaps the new boss is also more like the old boss than I would like to admit.