Thursday, February 09, 2006

Big Corporations Versus Big Brother

A persistent Internet rumour (and not like the "e-mail tax" hoaxes) says that large corporations, mostly media and telecommunications companies, are trying to make the Internet less free, less open, less democratic, and more like television with fewer moving parts. The Internet they envision is one of nearly endless professionally-produced content (good news for me in my other life as a professional content producer, perhaps), downloadable at the click of a mouse at ever higher speeds, but there's the rub: The power to upload, the most important power of the open, democratic Internet, will be restricted to corporations and those in their employ.

According to this article in The Nation, "those with the deepest pockets -- corporations, special-interest groups and major advertisers -- would get preferred treatment. Content from these providers would have first priority on our computer and television screens, while information seen as undesirable, such as peer-to-peer communications, could be relegated to a slow lane or simply shut out." (Emphasis mine.)

The article, published under the somewhat histrionic title "The End of the Internet," mentions that white papers put out by the usual telco suspects (Comcast, BellSouth, and Verizon among others) "are developing strategies that would track and store information on our every move in cyberspace in a vast data-collection and marketing system, the scope of which could rival the National Security Agency."

Funnily enough, according to the Christian Science Monitor (a paper I honestly don't read all that often; I've just had occasion to cite it twice recently), the US Department of Homeland Security is also planning and implementing a huge data-mining operation, ostensibly to track information patterns indicative of terrorist activities. One of the named sources in the article, director of the National Visualization Analytics Center Jim Thomas, claims that a component of the overall system, named Starlight, has already helped to foil terrorist attacks, but conveniently declines to mention any specifics on the grounds that they're classified.

On first glance, one might think the two paradigms currently locked in the power struggle to be our ultimate plutarchs (that is, corporations versus big government) seem to be working in tandem, but there is a conflict here. The corporate version of the ubiquitously data-mined Internet depends entirely on their controlling access. They don't want to see what you have to say, they want to see how you respond to what they're giving you -- and, most importantly, buy what they have to sell you. They want to track your surfing habits, track your online spending habits, see what movie trailers you download, and what music you order from iTunes. As with television's Nielsen ratings, none of that depends on your participation in the medium's production.

The governmental vision of the Internet, with its ubiquitous sub rosa surveillance, depends entirely on individuals' having the power to upload content to the Internet. In their version of the Internet, one would be absolutely free to upload anything one wished, as long as one didn't mind doing so in a complete lack of privacy. Everything "from blogs and e-mail to government records and intelligence reports" would be compiled in a huge, cross-indexed database, endlessly searching for ostensibly terrorist patterns. However, for this system to work, there must be blogs and open Google searches and participatory Internet content. (How else to trap out those terrorists lurking everywhere about?)

Given that contrast, it'll be interesting to see which, if any, of these visions prevails. The answer to that question, if it actually comes out to one or the other and not some bizarre hybrid of both, or neither, or something entirely else (I hate false dichotomies), will be a pretty good indicator of what our collective future culture will look like, even for those of us who don't live within the United States' borders.


Blogger weierstrass said...

I have to say, i think i prefer the second (governmental) option. See, I don't think that privacy is a fundamental right per se. Rather, people only need privacy to protect themselves against government/societal interference in their lives. The ideal would be that everyone who isn't engaged in wholly unacceptable behaviour should be free to do whatever they want to do in the open, free of harassment. A dream i know.
But yes, i worry about these two things all the time. I think we should start building a worldwide open network, by cutting out the telcos and linking up everyone's wireless networks to pass on each other's data, before it's too late.

5:44 AM  
Blogger Interrobang said...

I'm Canadian, so, yes, I think there is a fundamental right to privacy. Maybe not in the US Constitution, but certainly in the Canadian Constitution (and my government tends to agree with me, which is why we have a Privacy Commissioner and stuff). The legal manipulations the US Constitutional lawyers go through to establish precedent and what they call "penumbra" towards a right to privacy, are rather interesting. I also would tend to interpret "security of the person" as being Early Modern English for what we now express using the term "privacy," but that's my inner rhetorician speaking, as well.

12:54 AM  

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