Chapter 7: Collaboration and Freedom

CHAPTER 7

Collaboration and Freedom

Enmeshed with a global economy, every bit of “free” information carries its own microslave like a forgotten twin.
—Matteo Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits

THE TERMS commons-­based peer production, social production, Wikinomics,[1] open content, infoanarchism, or as I will simply refer to it here, peer-to-peer (P2P) sharing, may not describe exactly the same thing, but they collectively outline a new model of production and sharing in which people—­organized in nonhierarchical digital networks—­contribute to decentralized projects, often without financial compensation. The labor generated by the participation of these peers sometimes contributes to a common good that is collectively owned by everybody (Wikipedia is a well-known example). But as we saw in the first part of this book, the effort of these peers is increasingly captured and controlled by monopsonies, so that while contributing to the commons is still beneficial, participation in the network produces an inequality that can eventually outweigh that benefit.

The paradox is that the dual processuality of networks drives us toward this outcome while giving the appearance of more, not less, freedom. Thus while in general we have grown accustomed to copyright holders going to extreme measures to prevent the unlawful use of their materials in the production of derivative works (e.g., using a song as background music in a homemade video), we are now beginning to see more “creative” approaches that suggest more freedom, but that also represent more opportunities for corporations to make money. This was abundantly clear in the case of the famous “JK Wedding Entrance” YouTube video, which used copyrighted materials illegally. In the past, the only option in dealing with work uploaded to a digital network that made use of unauthorized components was to remove it. But in the case of this particular viral video, which shows a wedding procession dancing to the beat of Chris Brown’s song Forever and which was viewed 3.5 million times in the first forty-­eight hours after it was released, the record label came up with other options. Thanks to YouTube’s automated content identification tool, which scans a file as it is being uploaded for matches to copyrighted work and notifies the owners of the copyright, Chris Brown’s label (Sony Music Entertainment, a subsidiary of Sony Corporation) could opt to block or disable the video, track or monitor its views, or monetize the work by choosing to insert advertisements.[2] Instead of blocking the extremely popular video, they decided to embed an advertisement that allowed viewers to click to purchase the song from iTunes.[3] The result was that the song, which had been released a year earlier, enjoyed a revival in popularity and reached top sales spots on iTunes and Amazon. Thus the labor of someone’s wedding party and of those who helped the video go viral translated into real profit for the corporations (Sony, Google, its advertisers, etc.), without them having to do much in return.

Some might argue that these are just necessary adjustments to the cost of doing business and living life in the digital age, and that as long as the public gets something out of the deal (entertainment, the ability to easily distribute and share content, fleeting celebrity status, etc.), there is no reason to see in this exchange any sign of exploitation. But what happens when the automated systems like YouTube’s content identification tool fail to recognize that the work is being used in a legitimate way (such as applications within the fair use paradigm)? In such cases, the algorithm’s inability to deal with nuance might represent a threat to free speech. Furthermore, it is one thing for corporations to be able to make a quick buck from a home movie gone viral. But it is quite another when our very statements about freedom of speech have to be subsidized by corporations due to the fact that without the monopsony our speech cannot reach an audience.

Consider, for example, the Hitler Finds Out meme, a series of YouTube video parodies. The Hitler meme[4] is based on a clip from the 2004 German film Der Untergang (Downfall, in English), produced by the company Constantin Films. In this particular four-minute scene, Adolf Hitler—­played by Bruno Ganz—­is informed that Germany is about to lose the war, and he proceeds to have an angry outburst. Video amateurs have taken this bunker scene in German and added fake English subtitles to provide all sorts of new contexts for Hitler to rant about, from technology (“Hitler Finds Out There Will be No Camera in the iPod Touch,” “Hitler Finds Out He Has Been Banned from Xbox Live”), to sports (“Hitler Finds Out Newcastle United Have Been Relegated”), to politics (“Hitler Finds Out about Sarah Palin’s Resignation,” “Hitler Plans to Heckle Barack Obama”), to the more meta or self-­referential (“What Does Hitler Think of the Downfall Meme?,” “Hitler, as Downfall Producer, Orders a DMCA Takedown”).[5] In early 2010, it was reported that YouTube began to remove some of these parodies at the bequest of Constantin Films, who did not want to be seen as condoning the irreverent parodies (which, according to some, trivialized World War II and the Holocaust). This, of course, unleashed the ire of many infoanarchists and freedom-of-speech advocates, who saw the removal of the videos as a clear violation of fair use (the exception to copyright that allows people to use materials for purposes such as education, news reporting, criticism, and so on without asking for permission). It was not long before a video parody titled “Hitler Reacts to the Hitler Parodies Being Removed from YouTube” appeared.[6] On the one hand, the wit of the authors and the postmodern irony of the parody have to be appreciated. But on the other, one cannot help but wonder at the paradox of allowing a corporation to profit from a product created as a statement against that same corporation’s stance against fair use. In other words, why would the authors opt to have a public domain work hosted by a corporation, when they presumably have the tools and knowledge at their disposal to make the work available through other means? Perhaps the answer to that question lies within the parody itself, which has the führer himself deliver the basic lesson behind participation in monopsonies:
HITLER (speaking about Constantin Film’s decision to take down the YouTube videos): “The movie got international attention because of YouTube users’ hard work. And now they pull this shit? People worked hard on those videos, and millions of other people loved them! I even made one about Hitler being upset that someone else had taken his Hitler parody video idea! It was fucking great! Now there’s nowhere to put it!”

GENERAL BURGDORF: “My Führer, we can probably reupload it to Vimeo or DailyMotion!”

HITLER: “Nobody uses Vimeo or DailyMotion! YouTube is the de facto standard!”[7]The fact that one corporation functions as the single de facto buyer in the marketplace means that the challenge for the networked participant will be to retain the benefits of collaboration and social production instead of surrendering those benefits to the monopsony. Against the old slogan of “Workers of the world, unite!,” networked players or laborers may have to find ways to disassemble—­to disentangle their work from the digital network. The unthinking of networked production will thus involve figuring out how to subvert the alliances that corporations and states are setting up to capture our social and cultural production, so that even action and thought against authority happens along the channels established by them.

(UN)NETWORKED PEERS

In theory, peer-­to-­peer (P2P) networks embody a model of collaboration that, we are told, spells out the end of the monopoly and heralds a new era of equality and creativity. At its most idealistic, discourse on P2P describes a paradigm where all participants are equal and where they voluntarily and freely cooperate with each other in the production of common goods that can be appropriated by anyone, replacing inflexible top-­down hierarchies with open modes of production and communication that value reciprocity and sharing over maximization of profit. While the positive impact of successful P2P projects is evident, here I want to contest the status of P2P as an authentic alternative and question some of the norms or values behind the model. The point of this exercise is to investigate whether P2P networks are different from other models of digital networks or whether they merely replicate the same logic. While P2P networks may indeed democratize access to cultural contents, their ability to normalize monocultures needs to be assessed, along with the question of the kind of resistance to hegemony that might be embodied by the peerless, those outside P2P networks.

 

The Rise of the Digital Commons

While, technically speaking, P2P is just a particular form of network structure, it has come to represent a revolutionary (some would say anticapitalist) mode of production and social organization. What exactly makes this structure so revolutionary? Most digital networks are set up as a system of servers that transmit data to clients. Some of the advantages of this model are that the distribution of resources is centralized, the production of goods is organized hierarchically, bandwidth is allocated according to one’s means to pay for it, and ideas shared within the network can be considered intellectual property and protected by law. In contrast to this centralized architecture, there are no servers and clients in P2P networks because all nodes can simultaneously play the role of server and client as needed. Because there are no dedicated servers, a P2P network has no center.

Because P2P networks still rely on the Internet’s basic infrastructure of servers and clients to operate, P2P can be described as a decentralized network structure superimposed over a centralized network structure (I will return to this later). What this decentralized structure achieves is the horizontal or open production and dissemination of resources, the redistribution of bandwidth according to one’s needs through ad hoc connectivity, and the free exchange of ideas unconstrained by intellectual property laws. One consequence of eliminating the distinction between server and client is that peers can engage each other on equal terms: all peers own their own means of production, can access the network in the same way, they have the same opportunities to cooperate, and they all have the same opportunities to derive value from a good. Reward is measured not by profit, but by the opportunities to increase one’s knowledge, exercise one’s creativity, and increase one’s reputation among peers. The result is a commons-­based peer production system in which goods can be allocated with no need for monetary compensation; proponents of P2P recognize that digital goods, unlike material goods, can be effortlessly and infinitely reproduced, and it is therefore useless to try to create an artificial scarcity to regulate their exchange.

According to supporters of P2P, the power of collective intelligence behind this model is significantly redefining society at large. Its influence has expanded beyond the open-­source and open-­content movements to areas like governance, education, science, and spirituality. These changes—­we are told—­are nothing short of a revolution in moral vision, a “breakthrough in social evolution, leading to the possibility of a new political, economic, and cultural ‘formation’ with a new coherent logic.”[8] Furthermore, P2P is not just ephemeral theory but an actual social practice that signals a major transformation to come.

At a time when the very success of the capitalist mode of production endangers the biosphere and causes increasing psychic (and physical) damage to the population, the emergence of such an alternative is particularly appealing, and corresponds to the new cultural needs of large numbers of the population. The emergence and growth of P2P is therefore accompanied by a new work ethic (Pekka Himanen’s Hacker Ethic), by new cultural practices such as peer circles in spiritual research (John Heron’s cooperative inquiry), but most of all, by a new political and social movement which is intent on promoting its expansion. This still nascent P2P movement, (which includes the Free Software and Open Source movement, the open access movement, the free culture movement and others) which echoes the means of organization and aims of the alter-­globalization movement, is fast becoming the equivalent of the socialist movement in the industrial age. It stands as a permanent alternative to the status quo, and the expression of the growth of a new social force: the knowledge workers.[9]

There are, however, some serious limitations behind the idealistic sentiments expressed in this rhetoric. The P2P network is a heterotopia in the sense in which Michel Foucault uses the term:[10] an other space with a dual meaning—­at once an alternative and a confirmation of the impossibility of alternatives. This is because the “breakthrough” in social and economic evolution that P2P is said to represent is built on top of the same capitalist structures it intends to supersede. For instance, while peers can redistribute bandwidth among themselves, they must first rent it from an Internet service provider (ISP). The production of common goods still depends to a large extent on goods that only some can afford and whose production usually entails some form of exploitation (the production of electronic circuitry used for P2P is still dependent on the surplus labor of the Congolese miner or the maquiladora worker).

In short, the decentralization of resources and the deregulation of property are made possible only through the centralization and regulation that capitalism requires. While there are no dedicated servers in P2P networks, information must still flow through a dedicated server at some point because P2P networks are built for the most part on top of the same Internet we all rent from corporations, not a separate Internet. The only reason this world without money is possible is because it is built on top of a world where money is everything. Thus P2P is at once a success and a failure, both a self-­sustaining organism and a parasite that cannot live without its host. Baudrillard’s observations about simulacra are somewhat useful here: just like he argues that the enclosed space of a prison functions as a convenient way to conceal the fact that the whole of society is carceral, the “free” space of the digital commons that P2P networks create serves to conceal the fact that the rest of the space is subordinated to the logic of capitalism.

P2P might be a rejection of the commodity form, but this rejection is constructed over the old structures of labor and capital that make the commodity form possible in the first place. In capitalism, exploitation happens when the workers, who do not own their own means of production, are made to produce more than what they need to satisfy their needs, and the capitalist uses this surplus labor to generate wealth. Brilliantly, P2P circumvents the model by calling attention to the fact that a surplus of digital goods can be created effortlessly, removing the need for exploitation, and proceeding to facilitate the distribution of tools that puts the means of production into the hands of more people. However, because this happens over a network and socioeconomic structure where not everyone has the resources and knowledge to participate in the digital commons, P2P’s “alternative” consists only in a postponement of exploitation: removing it from the pristine sphere of the digital commons by relegating it to other spheres. P2P is, paradoxically, an alternative to the capitalist economy that cannot exist without the capitalist economy. Remove the economy from underneath it—­remove the millions of dollars invested in developing microchips and financing warlords that control the mining of Coltan through slavery and rape—­and the alternative will cease to exist.

 

P2P and the “New Socialism”

The desire to buy into the narrative that P2P networks are functional alternatives to capitalism is an expression of a rather romantic form of digitalism. According to Pasquinelli, digitalism is “a basic designation for the widespread belief that internet-­based communication can be free from any form of exploitation and will naturally evolve towards a society of equal peers.”[11] To the extent that proponents of the digital commons (Free or Libre software, commons-based peer production, open source, etc.) believe that digital reproduction can supplant material production in a way that results in more equality (and is better for the environment), they are adhering to a form of digitalism. In the process, unfortunately, they are obscuring the fact that a horizontal democracy of nodes still relies on the surplus labor of an unequal and exploited Other.

Politically, digitalism believes in a mutual gift society. The internet is supposed to be virtually free from any exploitation, tending naturally towards a democratic equilibrium and natural cooperation. Here, digitalism works as a disembodied politics with no acknowledgement of the offline labour sustaining the online world (a class divide that precedes any digital divide). Ecologically, digitalism promotes itself as an environmentally friendly and zero-­emission machine against the pollution of older Fordist modes of industrial production, and yet it is estimated that an avatar on Second Life consumes more electricity that the average Brazilian.[12]

An example of digitalism is the argument that portrays Web 2.0 companies like Flickr and Twitter as the heralds of a new form of socialism.[13] If nothing else, this glorification of the equality-­producing qualities of corporate-­controlled social media serves to remind us of Virno’s observation that, as a way to assuage the revolutionary flames it tends to fan by creating so much inequality, capitalism “keeps providing its own kind of ‘communism’ both as a vaccine, preventing further escalation, and an incentive to go beyond its own limitations.”[14] P2P is part of this process, functioning as an internal communism that makes capitalism seem less savage, as well as a laboratory for the protocapitalist modes of production of tomorrow.

Not for nothing did Virno call post-­Fordism the “communism of capital.”[15] Post-­Fordism is not about the production of material goods in the assembly line, but about the creative production of knowledge and culture through social relations outside the factory. It is the privatization of the public domain. This new form of exploitation, according to Hardt and Negri, translates into “the expropriation of cooperation and the nullification of the meanings of linguistic production.”[16] We see it as much in the commercialization of hip-­hop as in the adoption of P2P or open source software models by corporations. Big companies have recognized a business opportunity and are plucking the fruits of P2P collaboration in order to reinsert them into the market as commodities. In the name of social collaboration and gift economies, the users are put to work for corporations. While there are attempts to protect immaterial labor under new collective forms of ownership or “peer property” (licenses like GNU, Creative Commons, etc.), the fact that these models carry within them the ghosts of exploitation cannot be escaped. New models of sociability emerge, but they become organized under a structure where every aspect of the public is owned, hosted, or powered by private interests. A quick look at the terms of use of any social media company will reveal as much. And yet although in essence it is just an experimental expression of private property, peer production is accepted because it gives the illusion (which might be correct superficially) of being more equitable and inclusive. By furthering a capitalist technologizing of sociality, peers are not exactly engaged in the formation of a pure commons, but promote the privatization of collective labor.

Of course, things are not hopeless and P2P is anything but pointless. There are opportunities for resistance and creation in this process. We can respond, as Virno suggests, by “absorbing the shocks or multiplying the fractures that will occur in unpredictable ways.”[17] Despite capitalism’s attempts to expropriate them, the new models of collaboration opened up by P2P can be fruitful if they are converted into authentic political platforms that revitalize the public sphere. P2P does not have to be a “publicness without a public sphere.”[18] It does not have to pose as socialism while increasing our submission to a capitalist order. But for that we might need to think beyond the model of nodes and peers.

 

The Decline of Cyberpiracy

If there are limits to how much of an alternative to capitalism P2P can be, peers are still beautiful parasites. The heterotopias they create expose the fissures in the system and are testaments to the fact that other ways of thinking are possible. Today, the image in the mirror P2P projects of a world without inequality might be mostly an illusion, but at least it reminds us there is a mirror in which such projections are possible. Nonetheless, a critical assessment of P2P’s achievements must continue. While most P2P projects remain small-­scale experiments, one phenomenon was cited, until recently, as an example of how P2P could seriously disrupt and threaten the status quo on a mass scale: the piracy of digital goods. Even as the economic impact of digital piracy has been called into question,[19] the cultural significance of this practice remains uncontested. To some, digital piracy conducted through P2P networks is an unavoidable movement toward the redistribution of wealth, making digital goods affordable to audiences who would otherwise not be able to acquire them. According to Nick Dyer-­Witheford and Grieg de Peuter, “[M]ass levels of piracy around the planet indicate a widespread perception that commodified digital culture imposes artificial scarcity on a technology capable of near costless cultural reproduction and circulation.”[20]

But the rhetoric behind the image of the digital pirate as a cultural and countercapitalist revolutionary leaves some questions unanswered. While global piracy continues to rise, in some countries it is drastically diminishing or at least not growing. According to the RIAA, since 2004 the percentage of Internet-­connected households that have downloaded music from P2P networks has not increased. Similarly, a survey conducted by the Business Software Alliance reports that the percentage of youth in the United States who downloaded music, movies, and software without paying declined from 60 percent in 2004 to 43 percent in 2006 and then to 36 percent in 2007[21] (nevertheless, according to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, P2P piracy continues to be a problem in other parts of the world like Spain, Brazil, and France[22]). I am neither praising nor lamenting the decline of this form of exchange, nor am I saying there is enough evidence to claim that piracy will eventually disappear or significantly diminish. I am merely suggesting that the largest experiment in P2P adoption seems to be contracting, as strategies and policies begin to reassert the need to conform to social norms and respect private property.

Additionally, it bears asking: if P2P was about empowering individuals to participate in the creation and free exchange of culture, whose culture are most pirates reproducing and circulating with their P2P file sharing clients? Notwithstanding the litany of countercultural practices (hacking, mashing, modding, circuit-­bending, speedrunning, etc.) that P2P has facilitated or influenced, the fact remains that for most people, pirating involves the rather uncritical consumption of mass media, the downloading of the latest Hollywood blockbuster or teen idol musical hit. Piracy supplies a tremendous boost to the big artists by popularizing their work, making them even bigger players in the market. The logic of the network reasserts itself: the rich nodes are still getting richer through preferential attachment (new nodes tend to link disproportionately to the nodes with the most links). Digital piracy cannot escape the dynamics that make the network a machine for widening inequalities, not closing them. True, businesses need to adjust to the new dynamics of the industry, but the smart ones will figure out how to capitalize on this “communism.” Thus it is incredulous to believe that P2P sharing for the masses will significantly undermine monopolies by creating a long tail of diverse cultural alternatives. In an attention economy where traffic equals wealth (even if it is in terms of reputation, not money), the small-­time cultural producer can only aspire to become one of the massively shared commodities. Meanwhile, the pirate has only reaffirmed his or her role as a mere consumer in the process. Unlike the piracy of the seventeenth century, this strange form of appropriation or stealing only serves to increase the value of the good being stolen.[23] The sharing of monocultural goods (and the production of derivatives from these goods) that P2P models facilitate is a form of ultimate consumerism in which production becomes the new consumption. It is ultimate because (a) social relations outside the market are now commodified through P2P processes and placed inside the market and (b) by remixing monocultural goods and making them available for others to consume, we end up paying for the things we produce. Or as Searls observes in regard to user-­generated content, “[T]he demand side supplies itself.”[24]

Whereas mass media established a monopoly of communication characterized by the unidirectional flow of information from one to many, digital networks have increasingly come to represent a monopsony of communications where the flow of information is from many to one. Digital networks allow for the sharing of information according to models that seem democratic and egalitarian (models such as the many-­to-­many P2P), but in terms of the network infrastructure that aggregates and disseminates this information, the model is increasingly that of many users willingly submitting their content to one buyer, who manages it and derives profit from it in unequal proportion (as I argue in chapter 2).

 

Peers, Outsides, and Disassembly

The P2P paradigm is as nodocentric as any other network model, in that it establishes the irrelevancy of the nonpeer. The “peer” in P2P is an algorithm, a technologizing of a function that solidifies a social interaction according to certain protocols. As cyber peers become capable of recognizing only mirrors of themselves, the labor of nonpeers is externalized from the network and made invisible. But the inequality gap between peers and monopsonies (those who do not own the digital commons, but who still own the physical layer and infrastructure necessary to operate the digital commons) also increases, even as the participation of peers increases. Thus (to come back to the recurring theme of this book) poverty in the network is explained not only by exclusion—­as the narratives of the digital divide suggest—­but also by inclusion under nodocentric terms: it is easier than ever to access and participate in digital networks, but once inside, the logic of the network makes it nearly impossible to escape the dynamic that widens the gap between the wealthy monopsonies and the participating peers.

P2P is also a brilliant failure, but peers do have a supporting role to play in unmapping networked production. P2P allows for the proliferation of parasites in the midst of host systems, and this can serve as the first step in disentanglement. Parasites are useful because they tell us that resistance has conceptualized the first step in unthinking the dominant logic. While parasites or peers may not be able to completely flee the system (they cannot survive without the host), they are able to partially disidentify from the host, to modify the terms of battle. Everywhere the digital network as social template is, commodifying sociality, the peer or parasite can also be, decommodifying the social to a certain extent.

However, this is also where we might encounter the conceptual limits of the peer as a node, and where the resistance of the outside and the peerless becomes important. P2P might be an expression of the will to subvert capitalism, but it is an expression that only exists in one place and always in relation to one entity: the network. It is a commons built on a small corner of the market—­the social subordinated to the economy. The peripheries of the network, on the other hand, represent the only sites from which it is possible to unthink the network episteme, helping to conceptualize new models of identity and sociality. Unlike the peer in P2P, the unnetworked aims to be not only inside or outside the host but also where the host no longer is. P2P might be a good way of fighting networks with networks, but authentic alternatives will need to contemplate what it means to unthink the network altogether, to find freedom in defection from its logic.

 

(UN)NETWORKED FREEDOM

Who would not want the Internet to promote freedom? It is certainly a worthy ideal. Some of the latest proposals made by the Obama administration concerning Internet freedom, however, need to be scrutinized carefully. We need to look beyond the rhetoric of the speeches and examine how actual policies, laws, and joint ventures by the state and the private sector are situating the networked individual in society, and framing the kinds of cultural and social production that can take place within the digital network. Despite the rhetoric, we will find that recent calls from the U.S. State Department in favor of Internet freedom belie a problematic tension between corporate and state interests, on the one hand, and the interests and rights of citizens at home and abroad, on the other.

The story begins with the 2010 fracas between Google and the Chinese government. Most people assume that if you Google something in the United States, you will get the same search results you would get when you Google the same thing in another country. But this is not the case. Countries can and do exert influence on search engine companies to control the results that their citizens can access, and China is a notorious case of this kind of censoring. Doing a search for the word “Tibet” in China, for instance, can yield very different results in that nation than in the West. By early 2010, Google had supposedly gotten tired of the Chinese Communist Party stipulating the kind of search results it could or could not provide to people using its search engine. Google had been doing business in China for some years, and had never expressed any strong concerns over the manner in which the government censored its search results. But things came to a head when it was revealed that the January cyberattacks that compromised the private information of thousands of Google users came from hackers in China, hackers with possible connections to the government. In March, the company decided to stop censoring itself and decided to automatically redirect Chinese users to its search engine in Hong Kong, where everyone could conduct uncensored searches. Soon afterwards, the Chinese government announced it would not be renewing Google’s license to operate in the country, which made it seem as if the company would have to leave China later in the year.

After some tension and posturing on both sides, Google and the Chinese government did reach an agreement, and Google’s license has been renewed.[25] But at the time, the move to redirect all traffic to the Google Hong Kong site was celebrated in the West as a courageous slap in the face of Internet censorship. Similarly, there were concerns that the possible withdrawal of Google from the Chinese market would make things worse for the average Chinese web surfer.[26] The patronizing assumption was that Google’s services were a bastion of freedom inside the Great Firewall of China (one theory for the cause behind the hacker attacks on Google was that the Chinese government resented this freedom and was interested in spying on dissidents’ Gmail accounts). This would seem to suggest, to put it plainly, that Google and the rest of the Western IT companies are important tools in the struggle to spread freedom and democracy in China and elsewhere in the world, corroborating a narrative cherished by Western media in which Web 2.0 is bringing democracy to the oppressed world: Facebook liberating Moldova, Twitter aiding a revolution in Iran, and so on. In such cases, social media services are said to have helped mobilize mass protests to contest disputed election results. While not entirely untrue, these claims seem to be exaggerated in the Western media; their purpose seems to be not so much to help contextualize complex social movements as it is to build buzz for the latest social media craze.

To build momentum for this kind of narrative, Google’s announcement of its intention to stand up to Chinese censorship was followed, merely a couple of days later, by a speech by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Internet freedom.[27] Because of its importance in facilitating communication and dialogue across various divides, Secretary Clinton (or those responsible for writing her speech) called for an “unfettered worldwide internet,” saying, “We stand for a single internet where all of humanity has equal access to knowledge and ideas.” In contrast to this vision, she warned that a “new information curtain is descending across much of the world” and critiqued those regimes that are working against freedom: “Some countries have erected electronic barriers that prevent their people from accessing portions of the world’s networks. They’ve expunged words, names, and phrases from search engine results. They have violated the privacy of citizens who engage in non-­violent political speech. These actions contravene the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, which tells us that all people have the right ‘to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’”[28]

As examples of what freedom in digital networks should look like, Secretary Clinton remarked that U.S. citizens are free to access any content they want (“Americans can consider information presented by foreign governments”) and that people in other countries are free to contact U.S. citizens (“We do not block your attempts to communicate with the people in the United States”).[29]

These broad statements seem to completely deny the existence of surveillance, even in the United States, and they also do not reflect the fact that the United States reserves the right to interfere with what other people access in their own countries. A case in point would be a recent bill approved by Congress that imposes sanctions on Arab television stations and satellite channels carrying content deemed hostile to the United States.[30] While the bill, HR 2278, intends to censor content produced by Hamas and Hezbollah (which already constitutes an infringement on national sovereignty, according to some), its language is so broad that it actually makes it possible to label a television station a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” if it airs an interview with someone whose views are considered an “anti-­American incitement to violence.” As Mark Lynch writes in Foreign Policy, “[L]iterally almost every single Arab TV station would be so designated—­because no serious Arab TV station could cover the news in the region while ignoring Hamas, Hezbollah, or other figures on the list.”[31] The contrast between this bill and the ideals contained in Clinton’s Internet freedom speech are evident.

Apart from the issue of who gets to enjoy which freedoms, another problematic set of assumptions about the role of the corporation emerges from the speech. Secretary Clinton expressed the belief that corporations are important champions of Internet freedom in the world: “Increasingly, U.S. companies are making the issue of internet and information freedom a greater consideration in their business decisions.”[32] The reality, however, is that some U.S. companies are—­as discussed earlier—­actively collaborating with both autocratic and democratic governments to use the Internet to monitor and oppress citizens. The public’s rights and freedoms always seem to end up taking a backseat to business decisions, both at home and abroad.

In the United States, for instance, the lack of competition (sanctioned by the government) between corporations delivering Internet services impacts the freedoms of the public negatively, as evidenced by recent decisions over net neutrality. Net neutrality is basically the idea that all Internet content should be treated the same and that companies delivering Internet access should not discriminate between different types of content. Thus Internet providers should not be able to charge more or penalize users for downloading certain types of content, for accessing some websites instead of others, or for using particular kinds of software. It would seem that, in this context, recent attempts by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to champion net neutrality (hinting of regulations that would ensure transparency and corporate accountability) would be a good thing. But this interest in guaranteeing equal access seems to be destined to succumb to larger corporate interests. In 2008, for instance, the FCC tried to take media conglomerate Comcast to court for intentionally slowing down certain customers’ Internet connections because they were using the P2P file-­sharing software BitTorrent. However, in April of 2010 a federal appeals court told the FCC it had no right to enforce net neutrality in this manner. To breach this impasse, the FCC proposed that it would legislate Internet transmissions and data separately: while transmissions (how data flows through the wires or airwaves) would be regulated in the same way that wireline phones are regulated, the data itself would be less regulated (just enough to ensure that things like universal service and confidentiality are maintained). This might seem like an optimal arrangement, but what is significant about the outcome is what it represents for the public: a failure to curb monopolies and to promote more competition in the market. In this manner, neither deregulation (allowing monopolies to thrive) nor regulation (applying policies from the wireline era to the Internet) interferes with big corporate interests, and the public is positioned as passive consumers and silent citizens.

Such is the landscape at home; but what about the idea that the corporation is the best candidate for delivering Internet freedom abroad? Unfortunately, there is already a particularly horrendous track record of corporations as champions of American values in foreign lands, as evidenced by the histories of companies like Union Carbide, Dow, Shell, United Fruit, DuPont, Monsanto, and so on. Perhaps comparing Silicon Valley companies to big oil is like comparing Apple to oranges, but let us not forget that some of these IT companies have already been instrumental in helping authoritarian regimes spy on their own citizens or worse (when asked about selling networking hardware they knew the Iranian regime was using to spy on its citizens, a representative from a Siemens–­Nokia joint venture replied, “If you sell networks, you also, intrinsically, sell the capability to intercept any communication that runs over them.”[33]). In a gesture to public interest, Secretary Clinton did say during her speech that “[t]he private sector has a shared responsibility to help safeguard free expression. And when their business dealings threaten to undermine this freedom, they need to consider what’s right, not simply what’s a quick profit.”[34] Nonetheless, she seems to remain convinced that corporations can help the public express its opinions and organize action abroad, even against authority: “In Iran and Moldova and other countries, online organizing has been a critical tool for advancing democracy and enabling citizens to protest suspicious election results.”[35] Unfortunately, online organizing has also jeopardized the privacy and security of activists and opened up new avenues for repression. In this light, there is a troubling side to the partnership between states and corporations in framing the role of the networked activist.

One possible template for this partnership was revealed during the 2009 Alliance of Youth Movements summit in Mexico City. The official goal of the summit was to “explore ways to advance grassroots movements seeking positive social change through 21st century technology and tools,” and Mexico was selected because of “its ongoing challenges in addressing violence and crime.”[36] Since President Felipe Calderón declared war on drug cartels in 2006, Mexico has experienced an astounding fifty thousand drug-­related deaths (it is assumed that most deaths involve criminals, but it is difficult to ascertain how many involve civilians because very few are seriously investigated). Much of this violence is directly attributable to the demand for illegal substances in the United States, and since it is feared that this violence will eventually cross the border, one can understand the motivation for selecting Mexico as a site for a conference on social change. But what is the social media landscape into which Mexican youth are being recruited as activists? A look at the list of sponsors might provide a clue. Although the summit was hosted by Secretary Clinton and the U.S. State Department, it was cosponsored by Facebook, MySpace (at the time owned by Rupert Murdoch), Google, YouTube, Pepsi, MTV, and other corporations. One does not have to be a conspiracy theorist to feel a bit concerned by what seems like the perfect marriage of U.S. foreign policy and for-­profit interests, cloaked in a language of liberal democracy, human rights, and social change. In an age when social network analysis is becoming an increasingly important tool for securing the United States, what better way to keep an eye on the volatile youth of the Global South than to have them voluntarily fill out detailed profiles of themselves and of their social networks? From there, the tools of social computing can be applied to try to identify security threats to the network or to engage in the dissemination of propaganda. And if the youth of the Global South can do this while drinking AMP Energy and watching MTV, so much the better, it would seem.

For all its fascination with the “revolutionary” potential of this new form of digital diplomacy, the Obama administration seems to be employing the same failed methods and techniques from past decades. A new generation of young Washington bureaucrats, armed with smart phones and Twitter accounts, have thousands of followers and are able to speak to them in the vernacular of the web (consider two consecutive tweets from Jared Cohen, a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff: “Guinea holds first free election since 1958”; “Yes, the season premier [sic] of Entourage is tonight, soooo excited!”[37]). But when time comes to deploy actual strategy, the means and methods seem reminiscent of the one-­to-­many models of yesteryear, regardless of the new tools. Here is how Alec Ross, senior adviser for innovation to the secretary of state, discusses a social media strategy with Farah Pandith, special representative to Muslim communities for the Department of State:

You have a body of great material . . . Figure out over the course of whatever it is you’ve said, those things that can be encapsulated in 140 characters or less. Let’s say it’s 10 things. We then translate it into Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Arabic, Swahili, etc., etc. The next thing is we identify the “influencer” Muslims on Twitter, on Facebook, on the other major social-­media platforms. And we, in a soft way, using the appropriate diplomacy, reach out to them and say: Hey, we want to get across the following messages. They’re messages that we think are consistent with your values. This is a voice coming from the United States that we think you wanted to hear. So we get the imam . . . We get these other people to then play the role of tweeting it, and then saying, “Follow this woman,” and/or putting it on whatever dominant social-­media platform they use.[38]

This top-­down approach is seen as an exercise in which American values are translated into a variety of foreign languages and disseminated via the latest media tools. But where are the opportunities to listen to what the audiences in those communities might have to say about those values? No matter how modern the technologies used to deploy it, this “push” model does not seem like a very effective recipe for diplomacy.

The overall assumption behind Clinton’s speech is that this model of corporate-­ and state-­sponsored participation in digital networks can not only solve foreign policy problems but also empower world communities socially and economically. Without the slightest sense of irony, she compared the struggle to promote Internet freedom to another infamous revolution: “[T]he internet, mobile phones, and other connection technologies can do for economic growth what the Green Revolution did for agriculture.”[39] While this account of history attempts to present the Green Revolution as a technological success, it is difficult to ignore its legacy in terms of the destruction of the environment through pesticides, the impoverishment of our diets, the eradication of native seeds and forms of agriculture, and the increase in world hunger in spite of higher crop yields (due to greed and the disproportionate profits achieved by agro farming corporations at the expense of farmers across the world). One can only hope this is not the kind of success the information revolution has in store for the world.

The examples discussed in this and the previous chapter expose some of the limits of participation in digital networks. In the last section of the book, the idea of intensification as a strategy for unmapping the network, and as a starting point for alternative models of participation, is examined more closely.


  1. Commons-­based peer production and social production are terms used by Benkler. Wikinomics is a term defined by Tapscott and Williams. See Benkler, The Wealth of Networks; Tapscott and Williams, Wikinomics.
  2. According to Google’s website (YouTube is owned by Google): “If a rights owner specifies a Block policy, the video will not be viewable on YouTube. If the rights owner specifies a Track policy, the video will continue to be made available on YouTube and the rights owner will receive information about the video, such as how many views it receives. For a Monetize policy, the video will continue to be available on YouTube and ads will appear in conjunction with the video. The policies can be region-­specific, so a content owner can allow a particular piece of material in one country and block the material in another.” See http://www.google.com/support/youtube/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=83766.
  3. Doctorow, “Record Company Embraces Use of Its Music.”
  4. An Internet meme is a concept, object, or hyperlink that spreads rapidly from person to person by means of digital networks (metaphorically, a meme copies and distributes its information similarly to a gene, but the information consists of ideas and not genetic material, and its hosts are brains and not cells).
  5. For some popular examples of this parody, see http://www.telegraph.co.uk/ technology/news/6262709/Hitler-Downfall-parodies-25-worth-watching.html.
  6. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kBO5dh9qrIQ.
  7. Ibid.
  8. P2P Foundation, “What This Essay Is About.”
  9. Bauwens, “The Political Economy of Peer Production,” para. 55.
  10. Foucault, “Of Other Spaces.”
  11. Pasquinelli, Animal Spirits, 66
  12. Ibid., 72–­73; emphasis in original.
  13. Kelly, “The New Socialism.”
  14. Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, 18.
  15. Ibid., 110.
  16. Hardt and Negri, Empire, 385.
  17. Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude, 18.
  18. Ibid., 40.
  19. According to some figures, 750,000 jobs and up to $250 billion are lost every year because of piracy, although many of the estimates surrounding piracy have been contested, even by the government. See Anderson, “U.S. Government Finally Admits Most Piracy Estimates Are Bogus.”
  20. Dyer-­Witheford and de Peuter, “Empire@Play,” para. 28.
  21. Business Software Alliance/Harris Interactive, Youth and Downloading Behavior.
  22. IFPI.org, “IFPI Publishes Digital Music Report 2010.”
  23. Some industry leaders like Irving Azoff believe that stealing music actually generates more interest in concerts, which is where most pop stars are making their money today. While an artist like Bruce Springsteen might only make $10 million in record sales, he might make as much as $200 million on a single tour. See Seabrook, “The Price of the Ticket.”
  24. Searls, “Power Re-­Origination,” para. 14.
  25. Richburg, “Google Compromise Pays Off with Renewal of License in China.”
  26. See, for instance, “Authority, Meet Technology.”
  27. Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom.”
  28. Ibid., para. 17.
  29. Ibid., para. 52.
  30. Machet, “U.S. Congress Bill Threatens.”
  31. See Lynch, “Arabs Reject U.S. Crackdown,” para. 4. Lynch laments the disjunction between this bill and Clinton’s vision for an open media: “H.R. 2278 is a deeply irresponsible bill which sharply contradicts American support for media freedom and could not be implemented in the Middle East today as crafted without causing great damage . . . The last thing the Arab world needs right now is more state power of censorship over the media—­whether the Arab League over satellite TV or the Jordanian government over the internet. Hillary Clinton just laid out a vision of an America committed to internet freedom, and that should be embraced as part of a broader commitment to free and open media. Nobody should be keen on restoring the power of authoritarian governments over one of the few zones of relative freedom which have evolved over the last decade” (para. 5).
  32. Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” para. 48.
  33. Rhoads and Chao, “Iran’s Web Spying Aided by Western Technology.”
  34. Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” para. 55.
  35. Ibid., para. 34.
  36. Howcast.com, “Alliance of Youth Movements,” para. 1, 2.
  37. Lichtenstein, “Digital Diplomacy.”
  38. Ibid.
  39. Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” para. 26.

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