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Open Data and Open Internet Dogma: Sergey Brin’s Guardian Interview and the Political Economy of Google

The Guardian ran a great set of articles last week, the “Battle for the Internet”.  It included essays, video-shorts and interviews with the A-list of the Twitterati, bloggers, pundits, and OSPs (other smart people), from Clay Shirky, dayna boyd, Evgeny Morozov, Emily Bell, and more.

Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, director and major shareholder kicked things off with an interview on Monday with a full-throated defense of “open data” and an “open Internet”. “Web freedom faces the greatest threat ever”, he warned.

Brin skewered governments, Facebook and Apple, and the copyright grab by the entertainment industries in uncharacteristically blunt terms for the mounting threats. He condemned authoritarian regimes such as China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, of course. And he chastised the steady creep of complex, costly and unpredictable government regulation and national security pressures in all countries.

Facebook and Apple’s walled garden approaches were singled out because, Brin argued, they “risked stifling innovation and balkanising the web”. “All the information in apps – that data is not crawlable by web crawlers. You can’t search it . . . . There’s a lot to be lost,” he continued.

Finally, Brin lambasted the entertainment industries’ push to turn ISPs, search engines and other digital intermediaries into copyright cops through bills such as SOPA and PIPA in the United States, and their equivalents elsewhere. It is a checklist of some of the most important forces bearing down on the internet that others have identified for more than a decade, starting notably with Lawrence Lessig’s Code in 1999.

Most of what Brin says in the Guardian interview is not new, however, and can be found in the company’s latest annual report. When your Promethean mission is to “organize all the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”, as the “about” page of Google’s corporate website and in its annual report (p. 3) boasts, government imposed web blockades and surveillance, exclusive walled gardens and excessive copyright are a threat to your business.

Probably the most surprising thing that Brin told the Guardian is that he no longer believes the internet is an uncontrollable technology.  Five years ago “I thought there was no way to put the genie back in the bottle, but now . . . “, he says, “it seems in certain areas the genie has been put back in the bottle”.

It is the end of a dream. For those who still cling to the idea that the internet cannot be regulated, Brin’s disillusioned conversion will come as a needed surprise.

Brin quickly recanted from his denunciation of the digital feudalism represented by Apple and Facebook’s walled garden strategies in the face of criticism. In a blog post two days after the Guardian interview, he “clarified” that he actually deeply admires Facebook and Apple. And of course, the power of the state is wholly different than the search for profit and power through the market, he reassured everyone. And peace returned to the kingdom . . . .

That may be so, but Google’s annual report does single out social media companies as threats to the searchable web and as a risk to the company’s advertising business from which 96% of its $38 billion in revenue last year came (see p. 9). Indeed, a comprehensive and universally searchable web is the engine of the Google machine, responsible for cranking out profits in excess of 25 percent per year. There is no doubt that walled gardens and tethered apps could obliterate Google’s bottom-line by putting more and more of the internet beyond the reach of search and undermining the hyper-linking structure that has made the internet what it is.

A searchable web is a navigable web and this is not just in Google’s self-interest, however, but everybody who uses it. As Google states in its annual report, the company is fully committed to making “the internet a more useful and enjoyable experience for our users” (p. 9). Of this, I have little doubt. The problem is not the neglect of users, but rather the potential for over coddling and cocooning them in a web of their own information — a ‘filter bubble’ (Pariser).

Searching and linking really are useful and in this case what is good for Google, is good for us. These functions help to filter the potential disorder of a million voices all clamouring at once for attention — the Babble Effect — into a meaningful and intelligible shape (see Benkler; van Couvering). Searching and linking are also good for democracy, according to Yochai Benkler, although that does not mean that they eliminate social, political, economic, media and cultural power. They do not. In fact, they can and do concentrate attention while also reproducing and reinforcing hierarchies of power just like in the ‘real world’ (Hindman, Davis, ch. 7, BakerShirky).

Openness and transparency, searching and linking without limits are in many instances desirable things, but not always. However, Google’s appeal to them is one-sided, flat and selective, even if seductive. This is not to say that it’s appeals to these values are false. They are not and I think that there is no doubt that Google has more than just a shallow commitment to values that go beyond its corporate bottom line.

Indeed, even critics acknowledge this. Siva Vaidhyanathan, for instance, in The Googlization of Everythingsees Google’s commitment to making all the world’s information accessible as embodying something deeply desirable — a Digital Alexandria for the 21st Century, perhaps — but which is also a messianic and technocratic project driven by the mindset of engineers, and ego centric ones at that. Evgeny Morozov, in The Net Delusion refers to the “Google Doctrine”, the notion that the alchemy of Silicon Valley capital mixed with internet and enlightened State policies by the governments of the west will solve all the world’s problems and universal peace will settle in over all its peoples.

To its admirers, Google’s motto is not just rhetoric, but a whole way of being — an ontology — that dazzles and forces us in the face of challenges to ask, WWGD? (“What Would Google do?“, as Jeff Jarvis fawningly puts it in his homage to Brin, Page and Schmitt at Google & Co). Brin encourages a similar kind of view by linking his own personal biography with Google’s values in the opening pages of the company’s annual report.

Google’s rhetoric and what others have to say about it are also matched by several real initiatives that go beyond the corporate bottom line. Take, for example, the Measurement Lab (MLab) created by Google, the New America Foundation and the PlanetLab Consortium in 2008 and operated ever since.  The M-Lab allows internet users across the planet “to test whether their ISP is blocking or throttling BitTorrent and other protocols” free of charge.

Canadians, for instance, learn that they have one of the most throttled internet systems amongst the forty countries monitored by the MLab Project.  We also learn that Rogers has the dubious distinction of being the heaviest throttler of BitTorrent of all ISPs surveyed. The chart below shows levels of BitTorrent throttling in Canada relative to the US, UK, Finland, Australia and New Zealand.

Table 2: Network Throttling in Select Countries, 2008 – 2010

 

2008

 

2009

 

2010

 

AVG RNG AVG RNG AVG RNG
Canada

10

26

29

87

20

75

US

17

47

14

60

6

14

UK

16

23

26

44

13

21

Finland

6

5

5

3

6

3

Australia

11

16

21

29

9

16

New Zealand

19

23

32

37

10

1

Source: M-Labs.

This is useful data to have, indeed.

Google also created and maintains the Transparency Project, which documents the number of requests that governments make to Google to take down or block access to specific content, or websites. The number of requests from government sources in Canada are comparatively low. In the U.S., they are comparatively high. The Transparency Project also maps internet traffic patterns around the world to detect barriers to the free flow of information, whether that is coming from government restrictions, broken cables or other obstructions in the internet plumbing.

Google’s participation in the Global Network Initiative, an effort set up in 2008 on the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a forum for commercial internet companies to wrestle with the rights, responsibilities and ethics of freedom of expression and privacy online, is yet another good example.  To be sure, there is much to be desired with respect to the GNI and questions about what it has accomplished, if anything. Nonetheless, it does bring together several major internet companies with leading scholars and public interest groups that have solid track-records on these issues, such as the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard, Centre for Democracy and Technology (CDT), Index on Censorship, Electronic Frontier Foundation, World Press Freedom Committee, and so forth. Facebook and Twitter, in contrast, are missing in action.

At the same time that Google’s commitment to transparency, open data and the open internet are in many ways laudable, its’ conception of these things are simplistic, one sided and selective. As the company itself notes in its annual report, its own business relies on “confidential procedures” (p. 6). The detailed mechanics of the company’s Page Rank system that it uses to index the web and serve up search results are also shrouded in mystery. Only a very select view have seen behind the curtain.

The company’s ownership structure is also based on tight control. Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt control two-thirds of Google’s voting shares and use this to make decisions from the top. It keeps the rest of the commoners at bay, and it is not the most open way to do business. The company’s own Annual Report states, “this concentrated control could discourage others from initiating any potential merger, takeover, or other change of control transaction that other stockholders may view as beneficial”. It appears that openness has it limits.

When it comes to the ownership and control of our personal information online, however, Google’s stance is that there are no such limits and not surprisingly so, since openness removes any impediments to the unlimited, systematic and comprehensive collection of user-generated information that are the foundation of its business. As Christian Fuchs notes in his A Contribution to the Critique of the Political Economy of Google, internet users produce reams of information without pay for the likes not just of Google but Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and the rest of the social media platforms whose businesses depend almost entirely on the limitless collection of personal data and the hyper-exploitation of our ‘free labour’. This unlimited collection and analysis of personal information, remember, is the foundation of Google’s revenues of roughly $38 billion last year.

The debate is not whether or not Google, Facebook and Apple dominate their respective spaces, but whether that dominance will prove relatively immovable or transitory (also here and here). There are only a few countries where Google is not the dominant force in search and online advertising: China, Russia, Korea. In the U.S., Google’s revenues of approximately $17.5 billion in 2011 accounted for well over half of all online advertising revenues, which emarketer put at roughly $32 billion last year.

 

Google Share of Search

USA 66
Germany 93
UK 80
France 90
Italy 88
Canada 81
Australia 92.5
New Zealand 76
S. Korea 9
China 13
Japan 48
Avg Google (67)

Source:  Comscore, 2010a, Data Passport – 1st Half 2010; Comscore, 2010b, Data Passport – 2nd Half 2010; Alexa.com Top 50

Google’s dominant position means that its own standards with respect to data collection, retention and use also serve as defacto standards of what we can expect when it comes to online privacy. The flipside of Google’s full-throated defense of transparency is that any limits to the collection of personal data are a threat to the ‘free flow of information’. Indeed, EU moves to enhance personal data protection have been branded in exactly such terms, an affront to the ‘open Internet’.

Yet such a view is simplistic, and an opportunistic manipulation of the language and values associated with the internet that are worthwhile when pursued in a less hamfisted way. As scholars such as Helen Nissenbaum have long noted, the idea of privacy is not simply the desire to be left alone but our capacity to set the conditions for how information about ourselves is disclosed and used. And those decisions do not hinge on dogmatic adherance to values in the abstract but notions of trust forged with an eye to the quality of the relationship that we are involved in at a given moment and the contingent, contextual features in which our activities and relationships with others are couched. In short, the more intimate the relationship, the more we are likely to disclose. That is why it’s okay to get naked with a lover, but not in the streets or with Google.

Openness can also be a threat in dangerous situations, whether that’s being gay in a small town or during revolutionary times when confronting repressive states armed to the teeth. That, unfortunately, was a lesson learned the hard way by several people in North Africa and the Middle East during Arab Spring as well as the London Riots last summer when their posts to Facebook were used by the military and police, respectively, to track people down.

So, come to think of it, perhaps it’s a good idea that Facebook is walled off from search. Maybe people don’t want their activities on Facebook to be open and searchable by the whole world? There are already serious issues with Facebook’s own unbridled exploitation of personal data that it would be unwise to permit Google to open it even further to search and disclosure on the basis of its own blind adherence to “making all the world’s information universally available and accessible”.

Ultimately, dogmatic adherence to ‘open data’ and the open internet serve no one well. Recent U.S. court cases have also made it clear that  businesses built upon maximizing collection of personal information also makes such services easy targets for State surveillance.

Who owns your personal information? Not you, according to the courts, when the terms of service policies of Google, Facebook and Twitter baldly state that their business depends on the open and unlimited collection of user data as the foundation of their own businesses (see herehere and here).

Seen from this angle, then, openness is not just a license for Google to exploit the collection of user generated content/data for its own promethean pursuits, but a recipe for turning the digital media behemoths that now straddle many of the key cross-roads of cyberspace into functionaries serving the interests of the State and others. Indeed, this is exactly why Google, social media sites (Facebook and Twitter), music downloading sites (Apple) and payment providers (Paypal) and so forth are being targeted for inclusion into the apparatus of copyright enforcement, law enforcement and national security.

In other words, blind allegiance to the ‘open data, open internet’ mantra gives rise to several of the problems that Brin railed about in the Guardian interview to begin with. Only once we abandon one-sided and dogmatic notions of openness will we be able to achieve the kind of internet fit for free citizens in a democratic society.

Critical Media and Communication Studies Today: A Conversation between Dwayne Winseck and Christian Fuchs. Part 1

Part 2 of the conversation can be found on Dwayne’s blog here and on Christian’s blog here.
Part 3 of the conversation can be found on Dwayne’s blog here and on Christian’s blog here.

We met for the first time at the International Association of Media and Communication Researchers (IAMCR) in Istanbul, Turkey in July. We already knew each other through some collaboration in one another’s projects and our knowledge of one another’s work.

Following the conference, we exchanged some emails and Christian put Dwayne in contact with two authors of an excellent paper at the conference, Peter Jakobsson and Fredrik Stiernstedt, two doctoral candidates at Södertörns University in Sweden. Having recently moved to Uppsala University in Sweden, Christian has organized a speakers’ symposium where Peter and Frederik recently gave a talk.

Our discussion turned into a bigger conversation about different political economies of communication, media and the Internet. Christian, as many readers may know, is one of the foremost Marxist critical communication and media scholars today. If ever there was a case to demonstrate the decisive importance of Marxist analysis today, he provides it – in spades. Marx, as he says, is back, and not a moment too soon.

Dwayne, on the other, is no stranger to marxian political economy, but argues that we must draw from a wider range of sources than the Marxian pantheon. Other notions held dearly must be handled with greater precision – i.e. consolidation within the telecom-media-internet (TMI) industries – and more attention given to the specificity of market processes and forces, evidence and the strategies of particular firms. Other notions need to be refined drastically or abandoned, i.e. ideology. The fact that media, information and cultural goods are fundamentally different – i.e. they are immaterial commodities – than other goods should also be kept front and centre.

After stitching the conversation together and adding a few links here and there to some of the people and sources we refer to, we thought it might be a good idea to post the conversation on each of our blogs (Christian’s blog, Dwayne’s blog). As the wreckage of the global financial crisis (2007/8ff) continues to unfold and the information sectors – as industries, sets of technological capabilities, and vehicles of pleasure and for increasing the range of market forces – continue to be in a heightened state of flux, the ideas raised in debates over what constitutes a critical political economy approach to the field are arguably more important than ever. The main lines of our conversation follow:

Dwayne Winseck: Christian, as always I hope that you’re well.

I was impressed by the work of Peter Jakobsson and Fredrik Stiernstedt on data centres. It is a nice crystallization of geography, materiality, data and and ‘cyberspace’. The recent acknowledgement by Microsoft that neither it nor any other major US-based ICT/ Internet company – think Amazon, Apple, Google, Facebook, to name just a few – are beyond the reach of the US Patriot Act shows the global reach of US national security power, but also the importance of place. Jakobsson and Stiernstaedt illustrated the ties between security, the physicality and locations of ‘cyberspace’, even the geological underpinning of data centres, by examining, among other things, how Google is building a new data centre in Finland, with local government support through tax abatements and other enticements, out of the hulk of a retrofitted Cold War bunker buried deep in the ground. Proximity to Russia, where Internet markets are currently dominated by two Russian behemoths – Yandex and VKontakte – also means that the bunker-cum-secure-data centre could serve as a launchpad for Google’s future forays into Russia as well.

Peter Jakobsson & Fredrik’s Stiernstedt certainly deserved the Dallas Smythe prize for best Graduate Student paper.

Cheers, Dwayne

Christian Fuchs: Hi Dwayne.

Fredrik and Peter’s paper is very good. Indeed, all of their papers that I have read are.

The circumstance that the IAMCR has a Dallas Smythe and a Herbert Schiller award brings up the question of what Critical Media and Communication Studies are all about today, how important it is to be critical, what it means to be critical and what the role of Marx’s works is for Critical Media and Communication Studies, i.e. what the role class and the critique of capitalism should play in this field.

Let’s exchange some thoughts on these questions.

Best wishes, Christian

Dwayne Winseck: Thanks a bunch for Peter and Fredrik’s email addresses.

I also just read their abstract for the talk they gave at media@UU. That paper also looks impressive. I like the way they capture the materiality and sociality of media, and how they see certain elements of media — technology, commodities, juridical forms — being periodically unstable, then forming recurring institutional patterns. They seem to have a deft touch.

Smythe’s concept of the audience commodity (here’s one example of its recent use, Christian’s own use of this concept and the introduction of the notion of the Internet prosumer commodity is documented here), and more importantly, his injunction that communication and media studies were not materialist enough – i.e. they didn’t study the communication and media as industries, markets, and linchpins in the capitalist economy overall — are maybe even more valuable now then when Smythe began to unfold them 40-50 years ago.

Other ideas of his, however, can be obstacles, and a commodity analysis, while essential, only goes so far. It is precisely the tension between the real fact that communication and media are essential to capitalist economies – and to all command, control and decision-making structures – versus the fact that they don’t conform to the standards of normal economics at all that makes them so interesting. I mean, they produce immaterial things, from immaterial labour, for uncertain markets, fickle tastes, people just being people.

The latter point brings me to the idea that the belief that media and communication can be reduced to instruments of domination – a stance all-too-evident in the work of Smythe, Schiller and too many to name other political economists who have carried the ‘critical Marxist’ banner — has far too often obliterated the intimate links of communication and media to pleasure and joy. One-sided portraits of domination, in my view, also obscure gradations in the severity of pain, suffering and lack of recognition suffered by marginal and otherwise disenfranchised groups (Honneth) – a set of classes of people that is, as you well know, becoming larger and larger.

Smythe and this kind of political economy, I believe, offers much, and I won’t part way for a moment with what I understand critical political economy to be. However, I do not believe that critical political economy is synonymous with Marxist political economy. To think otherwise, I believe, constrains our vision too much and leaves a shallow well from which to drink.

A good concrete example is the question of how to study Google. Jarvis (in What Would Google Do?) reveres Google, while Vaidhyanathan (in Googlization of Everything) reviles it, but in so doing misses the positive generativity that Google creates: e.g. efficient searching, linking, indexing, navigability, storage, a digital Alexandria, etc. These are without a doubt immensely valuable resources conjured up out of our resources and need to make sense of them. In simple terms, Google provides without a doubt a significant spur to research, development, innovation and, undoubtedly, military security. Fredrik and Peter grasp this kind of subtler, textured interplay between power and pleasure in interesting ways.

Long weekend here, and friends from out of town, so should be enjoyable. Time to go. Hope you enjoy yours.

Cheers, Dwayne

Christian Fuchs: Hello Dwayne,

No doubt, Fredrik and Peter are very talented writers. You will like their papers.

The good thing about the awards at IAMCR is that they remind us of the need for Critical Media and Communication Studies and the relevance of Smythe’s, Schiller’s (and other scholars’) works today.

The great thing about Smythe is that for him the Political Economy of the Media was Marxist Political Economy, so he was clear on the need to abolish capitalism and class and to analyze media communication in the context of class. I think we need much of this insight today. On the one hand Smythe was opposed to ideology critique, which is problematic. At the same time he spoke of the consciousness industry, so there was some ideology critique in his own work. He did not focus extensively on alternative media, but there are such elements in his works, like the alternative broadcasting system he suggested to the Chinese (pretty much the same idea like Brecht and Enzensberger), documented in the paper “After Bicycles, What?”. So I do think that there is a lot in Smythe’s works to engage with today. Dallas Smythe reminds us of the need of being critical and thinking about class when studying the media.

Today we need to go somewhat beyond Smythe and see more of the positive potentials of media. However, if we stress the positive potentials too much, then we end up with the Cultural Studies celebration of commodity culture, so we have to be careful and also take a look at the political economy of positive and negative potentials, the distribution of resources between them etc. Alternative forms of communication that transcend market, capitalism and ideology are not impossible, more unlikely, precarious, tend to have less visibility, resources, people etc. Political action is needed in order to channel resources towards alternative media so that that they become more likely, powerful, less precarious, etc.

Smythe reminds us of the need to engage with Marx and the critique of capitalism when we analyze the media today. After the rise of neoliberalism, postmodernism and the cultural turn, it has since the 1980s become ever more uncommon to engage with Marx. The engagement with Marx and Marxism has increasingly been replaced in universities. And by saying Marx, I do not mean the fetishization of Marx as a person or politician, but I do mean the importance of engaging with the concepts of class and capitalism. Ironically, while culturalists claimed that class and Marx are dead and that we need to focus on identity politics, local reforms, etc, the antagonisms between capital and the proletariat was becoming ever more intense (the rise of precarious labour, the increase of unemployment, the explosion of socio-economic inequality, the differences between profits and wages, etc). The rise of the movement for democratic globalization showed that it is a movement galvanizing around the topic of class. In the 1980s and 1990s new social movements were quite separated around topics like gender, racism, peace, nature, etc – the rise of neoliberalism resulted since the late 1990s in a movement of movements (the anti-corporate movement/movement for democratic globalization), class issues have been binding all the other issues together in this movement. The result of the cumulating antagonisms of capitalism was the new global economic crisis, which has shown the importance of the economy, class and capitalism and has brought back an interest in Marx. Marx (i.e. the analysis of class and capitalism) was always important, but now we are in a time in which his work has regained much of its salience.

Enjoy the weekend. Best wishes, Christian

For Part 2, follow the link here.

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