Guest post by Steven Miller and Satish Musunuru
(Part 3 of a five-part series about the corporatization of Internet surveillance.)
Bill Gates Dismisses Open Source Pioneers as Communists
From the beginning, Bill Gates argued that no public discussion of who controls the Internet should even be permitted. He famously called open-source pioneers “new modern-day sort of communists”. (6) Bill Clinton opined that corporations were the best way to develop the Internet. Al Gore and Gates re-defined the web as the “Information Super Highway”.
Of course, we know that super highways often have tollbooths, where you pay for the privilege of driving your car. Clinton began the massive wave of privatization, of both society in general and of the Internet in particular, that flourished under George W Bush and is expanding even more with Barack Obama. Clinton’s de-regulation of Wall Street set the stage for the looting of American by Wall Street banks, the 1% and their corporate attack dogs. Rajiv C. Shah & Jay P. Kesan amply describe this in “The Privatization of the Internet’s Backbone Network” (7)
The Telecommunications Act of 1996 deregulated the entire electromagnetic spectrum of the atomic vibrations we use for communication. This energy spectrum is as fundamental as the sun, but it was given away to corporations for chickenfeed. This was a huge step encouraging the privatization of Nature and natural processes.
Then the insurance model, essentially the cable-TV model, was imposed on the Internet: you pay a corporation for access to something that could easily be accessible for everyone for nothing. After all it’s simply a process of how you configure the software.
This massive centralization was clearly the exact opposite to the original intent of the Internet. The few massive super-corporations that already controlled the airwaves became ever more powerful. The great Uruguayan writer, Eduardo Galeano stated, “Never have so many been held incommunicado by so few”. (8)
The essential structure of the Internet is simply written down as code. It can be designed to benefit the public, or it can be configured to benefit private profit. Larry Lessig explains:
“The architecture of the original Internet minimized the opportunity for control, and that environment of minimum control encouraged innovation…. At its birth, the Internet gave individuals great freedoms of speech and privacy.
“But the story about liberty on the original Net had a sequel: what the architecture could give, it could take away. The inability to control was not fixed in nature. It was a function of the architecture. And as that architecture changed, the ability to control would change as well…. Technologies were being deployed to better monitor and control behavior, with the consequence, for better or worse, of limiting the liberty of the space. As the architecture changed, the freedom of the space would change, and change it did.” (9)
Privatization is therefore not something that just happens. It is engineered. This goes deeper. These days, people like to imagine the Internet as a vast network, spanning the globe, where gigabytes of information send pictures and blogs around the world in microseconds. However, the Internet is dwarfed by a larger, and far more sinister system of networks, the Intranet. The Intranet is the collection of corporate and military networks that are protected from the public by firewalls. These have expanded again into extranets – including collaborators from other private concerns into shielded activities. Needless to say, individuals have no access to their computers, but corporations and the NSA have access to yours.
Dan Schiller described the formative role of the Internet’s evil twin – the Intranet – back in 1999:
“Corporate applications of Internet technology – intracorporate and business-to-business – comprise the true fulcrum of Internet system development. Corporate networks are the guiding hand of technical experimentation within cyberspace and comprise the leading site of its creative ferment. (emphases added)” (10)
Fast forward to 2013 – the corporate control of digital technology today has a evolved far from the original vision of a vast global network where everything is open for everyone. We could have public servers at no cost – we have public airports and roads – but we don’t. Increasingly everything is in the Cloud, and corporations own and control the Cloud. Software components, like those Berners-Lee accessed for free, are now sold as apps. Corporations determine who can use them, for a price. Even if certain corporate products are free, it is largely because corporations stand to gain even more from the data they have about users using those products. Facebook is a good example here because while the social networking service is arguably free, the data that they collect and analyze on a daily basis is far more valuable.
Almost all of the data and intelligence reside on the cloud, which is a fancy way of saying massive data centers spread around the world, owned by massive corporations like Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft. etc. These data centers account for up to 10% of the worldwide usage of electricity.
The computers and cell phones we now use constantly reach out to the cloud for even the smallest of activities. When we speak into a cellphone and see our words appearing on the screen, what’s happening is that our voice is sent over to the cloud, where it gets converted into English language words, and then sent back to the phone. It takes only milliseconds to do this and is not easily visible to the user. The cloud stores every word we ever say to the phone at least for a period of time. Such a simple act of converting spoken words to written words can actually be done on the phone itself, if it had the program, but it has become cheaper and more advantageous for corporations to do it on the cloud.
A more recent evolution is the development of “computers” with greatly devolved capacity, really just shells of computers, with little storage and an always-on connection to the cloud. Unlike normal computers, these computers cannot function without the Internet. They are simply a window into the cloud. If you lose one of these “computers” you lose only the hardware and none of the data because everything is stored in the cloud, which is owned by these private corporations. This is cited as a convenience to consumers but, as we see with the NSA, it can be potentially dangerous to live life in the cloud. Facebook claims they own everything ever posted on their platform – photos, videos, writings, songs, you name it.
Microelectronics drives all this and is changing the nature of property. In the 16th Century most private property was in land; all of it was tangible. Today lots property is intangible, including things like software, algorithms, and ideas. But private property is still the divine right of thugs. Thanks to the Supreme Court, we understand these thugs are “corporate people”. So what kind of people are these?
The great book, The Corporation, points out that corporations exhibit characteristics of a very specific kind of person – namely psychopaths! (11) Like psychopaths, corporations are grandiose, manipulative, both charming and deceptive, unable to feel remorse and always refuse to accept responsibility. So we happily trust all of our technology and most of our military to the tender mercies of… psychopaths. You know, nice people like Ted Bundy!
We can draw some conclusions here:
- As long as society allows the private ownership of information technology by corporations for profit, the unlimited positive potential of technology will be deformed to guarantee that profit, short-term, regardless of the long-term destruction of society and the planet.
- Corporations control the Surveillance State, not vice-versa.
- Corporations control every technology as private property. The sad lessons that Global Warming is trying to tell us, the utter corporate incompetence in the abuse of antibiotics, (just two examples!) shows that corporate control is inherently incompetent and short sighted.
- Therefore only the expansion of real public ownership and control of technology, at every level, in every branch of the economy, can release the wondrous potential of technology without abuse. The world of the very near future is going to be either all corporate, with no public, or all public, with no corporations. Which future it will be is up to us.
Background and Notes
7) “The Privatization of the Internet’s Backbone Network” by Rajiv C. Shah & Jay P. Kesan (http://www.governingwithcode.org/journal_articles/pdf/Backbone.pdf)
8) Zinn, Howard. A people’s history of the United States: 1492-present. 2003
8) Lessig, op cit p 140
9) Lessig, op cit, p 140
10) Dan Schiller. Digital Capitalism. 1999, p 17
11) Bakan. The Corporation – The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. 2004. p 56 (You can also view the fine movie of the same name – on
To be continued.
photo credit: Domain Barnyard via photopin cc
Reposted from Daily Censored
Steven Miller has taught science for 25 years in Oakland’s Flatland high schools. He has been actively engaged in public school reform since the early 1990s. When the state seized control of Oakland public schools in 2003, they immediately implemented policies of corporatization and privatization that are advocated by the Broad Institute. Since that time Steve has written extensively against the privatization of public education, water and other public resources. You can email him at email@example.com
Satish Musunuru draws upon his training as an engineer and his experience as a professional in Silicon Valley to understand the relationship between technology and corporate capitalism and how it has brought us to the ecological and societal crisis we find ourselves in. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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The giving away of the communications spectrum is a replay of the railroad boom of the 19th century — the land on which the railroad were to be laid was given away to the biggest corporations or bought on the cheap by speculators who then sold to the railroads.
Thus it has ever been in capitalism, which started with peasants being forced off land they had farmed and the fencing off of woods for foraging, so that the displaced would be forced to toil for low pay and inhumane working hours in the new factories. What’s happened with the Internet is a new closing of the commons — public or natural spaces grabbed by a handful of class elites for their private profit.
Excellent point, SD. The authors of this series (like me) clearly view the Internet as part of The Commons. What’s more, that was clearly the intent of the people who started the Internet.