Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy
Directed by Ridley Scott (2018)
Based on media critic Robert McChesney’s book by the same name, this is a thoughtful exploration of the growing debate whether the Internet makes us smarter (by giving us access to information) or dumber (owing to information overload and algorithms that trap us in unique information bubbles* and bombard us with corporate/government propaganda, “fake news” and orchestrated distraction).
McChesney begins by tracing the steady transition from the Internet’s early egalitarian, democratic, community-focused roots to its present domination by four major corporations (Facebook, Amazon, Apple and Google).
McChesney begins by dispelling the myths we our taught in school – that capitalism is synonymous with democracy. He points out that capitalist economic systems are very common under totalitarian systems, eg China, Chile under Pinochet and Italy under Mussolini. Class society and inequality are fundamental aspects of capitalism, as is the tendency for monopolies to drive small and medium sized companies out of business.
He points to a number of significant government decisions that have enabled the inevitable corporate takeover of the Internet, first created in 1969 (at taxpayer expense) as the military project Arpanet.
In 1985, the US military transferred Internet oversight to the National Science Foundation (an independent agency of the US government). While under NSF control there was a specific ban on using the Internet for profit-making purposes.
Under the 1993 Communications Act, the Clinton administration repealed this ban, allegedly to increase competition and reduce costs. This, combined with an FCC ruling exempting telecoms and cable providers from an obligation to share their cable networks with Internet service providers (ISPs), would allow three telecoms monopolies (Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T) to dominate the entire US broadband network. Thanks to this monopoly power, US Internet enjoys the highest access costs and lowest Internet speeds in the world.
McChesney devotes the final third of the film is devoted to an analysis of the importance of surveillance (data collection) in enabling the Internet monopolies to derive income from their services. By collecting massive amounts of data on our online lives (and selling this date to other corporations), corporate monopolies produce complex algorithms enticing us to purchase ever more stuff we don’t really want or need.
*Google, Facebook and Amazon all use complex algorithms to only show you news and search items that reflect your past Internet history.