Commercialization makes your online rights irrelevant, more thoughts from my talk with @ioerror at #rp12

Last week I wrote about one of the topics Jacob Appelbaum and I discussed at our talk at Re:publica 2012 {1}; that as a result of the commercialization of the Internet, we have moved from free and open social platform, to the centralized social media monopolies we know today. Today I want to mention another issue that we covered, how commercialization is putting an end to the Internet as a public space.

It’s import to understand that it’s not that capital does not want to fund free and open platforms, or that capitalists choose not to: capital simply can not do so.

Capital can not fund free and open platforms because capitalists must capture profit or lose their capital, and thus for-profit platforms that can not capture profit must eventually vanish.

In order to capture profit, capitalist funded platforms must introduce choke-points and/or toll-gates into their platforms, because their business models depends on the control of user data and interaction, and therefore these platforms can not be free and open.

Thus, the prospects for free and open platforms returning in any mainstream form seem slim without alternatives to the profit motive to finance them.

Free and open communication platforms that don’t surveil, control or exclude can only be provided socially, as a public good.

However, in the current era of unchallenged neoliberal ideology imposing public austerity and community precariousness everywhere, building the social capacity to create alternative platforms at a scale that can displace Facebook and the others seems unlikely.

As these are commercial platforms, which are operated for profit, you only have the privilege of using the private platforms so long as you use them in ways that benefit the platform operator.

The result of this, is that using these platforms become the only popularly accessible way to communicate with the masses, whether your an activist, an artist, a journalist or anybody who has something to say, privately run social media platforms are the only way you have to reach the majority of people.

Activists, artists and journalists often have things to say that upset people, sometimes powerful people, who can create problems for the platform operators.

As nobody has any explicit right to use a private social platform, these platforms have a strong incentive to remove users and content that may create controversy.

The early internet was conceived as a sort of virtual public space. In his 1996 “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” John Perry Barlow writes “We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Barlow’s colleague John Gilmore famously claimed “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.”

The critical feature of the Net that gave rise to such freedom was the mesh topology of the network and the distributed and peer-to-peer architecture of the applications that ran on it.

The early Internet was a social platform that allowed groups and individuals to interact directly with each other, and thus, such communications where unmediated by any public or private third party. As a result, it was difficult to monitor and control such communications.

To preserve this freedom Barlow and Gilmore became two of the founders of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, with Barlow’s declaration becoming something of a manifesto for the group.

The immediate threat was Government legislation intended to make the net more suitable for the purposes of commerce and law enforcement.

Barlow’s declaration warns how legislation such as the “Telecommunications Reform Act” (Telecommunications Act of 1996) are threatening to destroy the freedom of cyberspace. Barlow was so offended he claimed that the US 1996 act is one “which repudiates your own Constitution and insults the dreams of Jefferson, Washington, Mill, Madison, DeToqueville, and Brandeis.”

The 1996 act was followed by many more in the US, as well as other countries. Some of these are well known. DMCA, SOPA, ACTA, The Digital Economy act 2010, the list goes on an on, all with the usual concerns: piracy and cybercrime. All part of the effort to make the Net safe for business and under the control of law enforcement.

Yet, none of these laws where ever able to totally take away the freedom Gilmore and Barlow sought to protect.

Since legislation is a public sphere, there is public contestation.

These laws where opposed by the EFF, along with other groups such as Le Quadrature du Net, along with large social mobilizations, and even by the emergence of a political wing in the form of the Pirate Party phenomenon.

Even if much of the opposition failed, some succeed. Certain laws where delayed, a few totally defeated, and many modified to include concessions.

Opposition did not only take political form, the laws where also flaunted and simply shown-up by inspiring renegade sites such as the Pirate Bay.

Legislating the public internet was no easy task when the people where willing to fight for their online rights.

Laws such as the DMCA where conceived in the days of a peer-to-peer internet. When groups and individuals controlled their own means of communications, by, for instance, running their own mail and news servers, their own web servers, etc.

If somebody was hosting content somebody else objected to, coercive laws where required to force the person to remove the content from their own server.

While these laws where written in such ways so as to favour the interests of intellectual property holders and law enforcers, they where none-the-less regulating the internet as a public sphere. They recognize some rights and liberties for both sides, and, though with unequal capacity, both sides had the chance to fight for these rights and liberties.

However, starved of sufficient financing, the original distributed and peer-to-peer applications, that where the communications tools of the public internet, began to be abandoned.

As capital can not fund such platforms, online communications has largely moved to privately controlled social media platforms. Being private, they are not subject to the contestation of the public sphere.

Our social space online has moved from the public square to the shopping mall.

From the public sphere where we can fight for our rights and influence the laws and bylaws that govern our conduct, where we can engage in civil disobedience when we oppose the rules, to the private sphere, where we have no rights, and can be expelled and excluded at the pleasure of the private owners of the platforms.

Today, if somebody is hosting content that somebody else objects to, that content is not likely to be hosted by a server they control, but rather by a commercial social platform. Such content can be removed with no due process, with no recognition of the rights and liberties of both parties, simply the unilaterally imposed rules of the platform operator.

In the case that the content is controversial, and the objecting party is powerful, the operator has strong incentive to remove it, and very little incentive to put themselves at risk to keep the content online.

The powerful interest that wish to control content online no longer need coersive laws to do so, they simply need co-operation from the platform owners. Such co-operation is happily provided by most operators, and is often even a precondition of their financing.

Commercialization has made online rights irrelevant

The world where “anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity” can not exist on Facebook, and can not be built by capital.

I’ll be at Cafe Buchhandlung at 9pm as usual tonight. Please join us.



  1. Douglas Carnall

    This problem has always been obvious. If you don’t host your own material, you are at the mercy of your internet service provider. Even if you run your own server, you can always be shut down by the person at the other end of the network switch.
    I ran my owner server at home as an experiment for a while: it was a fair amount of hassle, and my electricity bill went up a lot. It was a highly educational experience though.
    Probably the best way forward to address the problem of suppression of content by BigCorpValues is to encourage the formation of small to mid-size hosting cooperatives by people with shared values. This will create a diversified ecosystem which is much harder to shutdown.
    If you don’t have access to such a cooperative, you’ll just have to resort to ever more subtle metaphors…

  2. Seth

    I like the idea of forming hosting co-ops. Biggest drawback to hosting at home I’ve found is the crap asymmetric Internet connections. Usually you have to order the most expensive residential plan, and even then it’s barely adequate for any serious data transfers. Co-locating your own server is pricey too, $90/mo seems to be the going rate.

    I’m excited about the hardware developments with “plug” computers, that should help out quite a bit with electricity costs. Community-owned mesh networks in urban areas will (hopefully) eventually come to replace the crap local cable and phone company duopolies and put them out of business for good.

  3. Douglas Carnall

    I agree $90/month is quite an overhead for an individual. But between 8 or 10 people it is a manageable sum. You might even think of having a mirror in a different jurisdiction. Call it “an internet affinity group” if you like. Of course you have all the problems of co-operation…
    One of the more heartening parts of the wikileaks saga was the way in which more than 1000 sites quickly agreed to host that insurance file. That’s the sort of action that springs to mind. Such groups could also be good bit torrent citizens, help out with Tor etc etc. Would there were 10 different flavours of wikileaks each with its own technically adept following. Monocultures are (a) vulnerable to disaster and (b) boring.
    And yes, it has never been in any ISP’s economic interest to defend against legal challenges, whatever the merits of the case. The costs of the defence rapidly exceed the value of the client.
    Although the phrase “digital citizen” is much bandied about, there are currently all too few with the skill to actually deserve the appellation. But this is entirely remediable.

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