No Net Profit: Resisting corporate domination of the World Wide Web

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Over the last fifteen years, computer technology has mushroomed. The Internet doubles its traffic every eighteen months. Previously, the Pentagon-dominated network was the province of those who had the time and inclination to wrestle with cumbersome computer network programs. With the advent of easy-to-use “browsers,” the Internet has become an extremely useful mass research and information tool and entertainment medium. E-mail is now almost as indispensable as the telephone to those with access.

Privacy vs regulation. The recent Howard government legislation, purporting to censor material on the World Wide Web (WWW), was a cynical attempt to influence Senator Harradine’s vote on the sale of the Telstra Corporation. Regular Web users, civil libertarians, Internet service providers and some powerful players in the Information Technology (IT) sector vigorously opposed it. The IT corporations couldn’t care less about individual rights. It’s just that government interference is bad for business.

Microsoft Corporation is actively engaged in research on incursions into Internet technology and on ways to make the Internet a more commercial entity. Microsoft is currently putting a great deal of money and research effort into Web TV, which is almost a caricature of commercialisation. It will allow only minimal interaction by the user, who is to be bombarded with information considered “safe” and of commercial value. Political statements, of course, will not fit these definitions! Some commentators predict that such services will have the suffocating atmosphere of a cyber shopping mall. Video stores may be replaced by highly centralised Web TV providers in much the same way McDonalds has replaced the local fish and chip shop.

But there’s a major barrier to this commercial Brave New World: encryption and secrecy, the main source of tension between would-be cyberbusinesses and regulatory authorities. Companies do not want to trade on the Internet when there is a high likelihood of crackers and commercial rivals breaking in and changing their websites, disclosing passwords, or intercepting secret information. Potential customers won’t trust e-commerce if their credit card details could be intercepted. Most current legal encryption methods are insecure. The use of unofficial, secure encryption methods has been banned in the U.S. and elsewhere as prohibited military technology.

The problem for governments is that it is impossible to guarantee privacy for business while simultaneously snooping on individual citizens. The WWW is only the most familiar part of the Internet, a global communications network originally developed for academic research and military operations. Technical solutions to the blocking of individual websites have long been available. But the design of the network means that wholesale blocking of specified types of data without impeding other data would involve expensive and intrusive monitoring of information and a huge drop in system performance. This would effectively kill off the emerging industry.

Cyberorganising and censorship. Activists also want private, unrestricted use of the Internet as an organising tool and sources of information. Moves such as the Howard government’s new law are really aimed at us. The hysteria about porn sites and recipes for homemade bombs is intended to soften up the community for political control of the Web. Commercial concerns want unfettered access to new markets. But they want the Net to be uncluttered with non-commercial material — it slows down access times. Hence the attempt to demonise and criminalise much of the commercial Internet community.

While the capitalist media focuses on George Soros’ reactionary interpretation of the Judeo-Christian ethic, activist websites explain how he, and the IMF, have wreaked havoc on Asian peoples. Many political sites offer valuable, and authoritative, information — but you need to search for them.

This is where real censorship arises. It is impossible to navigate through cyberspace without the service of “search engines.” These are information servers which catalogue web content and present it to users in a comprehensible form. There is a growing tendency for the designers of these search engines to direct traffic to government and commercial sites, and also to reactionary sites masquerading as “mainstream.”

A good example of this is the issue of domestic violence. Twelve months ago, a search for the keywords “domestic violence” returned a list of mainly feminist sites with content about resistance to physical attack and strategies to escape abusers. Today it’s much more likely that so-called “men’s rights” sites will be found. In common with similar web pages, these copy the tactics of commercial porn sites by including keywords which match the criteria of the major search engines. Activist sites, which do not use this con, are further disadvantaged. The Internet’s rapid growth rate holds the promise of massive returns for a few large IT corporations. Open access threatens this. IT profits come from charging “technological rents” — fees for Internet connections, copyright licences for software etc. Yet these super-profits are highly transient. As soon as a technological innovation becomes widely accessible — as soon as a monopoly is broken — the potential for money gouging falls away. Rapid technical change and laws to protect so-called “intellectual property” are necessary to protect fragile income streams.

It is important to realise that almost all the underlying technology for the Internet has historically been publicly owned and developed. Back in the ‘60s, the UNIX operating system and the C programming language were developed at ATT’s Bell laboratories by an off-duty employee using a borrowed computer. However U.S. anti-trust laws prevented the giant corporation from selling the computer sources code for profit. It was licensed to universities, particularly the University of California at Berkeley. For a decade, UNIX and the routing protocols which control the Internet were refined by university programming work and the code was “open source” — the program’s source code is supplied with the program and is open to improvement by any programmer who uses the software.

In 1979, ATT, by then freed of legal restraints, patented important parts of the code, and asked for licence fees. In response, the UNIX programming community excised ATT’s “property” and developed a fully non-commercial version, which is the basis for all of the software which drives the Net.

Fifteen years ago, Bill Gates would not even turn up for yearly conferences on the Internet. Now he and other super rich tycoons are attempting to transform it into their private money-spinning domain. It’s the same old story. The technologies that have the capacity to progress society and release us for more fulfilling activity are being used to decrease our share of the economy and produce a sense of hopelessness. There can be no doubt that corporate managers have a high degree of class consciousness in their use of information technology, along with other techniques, to repress workers.

Keeping the channels open. The change in culture that is accompanying the commodification of the Internet is being felt most strongly by those who recall the openness and freedom that the Net once had. The mini war going on over the use of open source programs continues. Microsoft’s notoriously “buggy” software is partly due to the fact that it is rigorously controlled — a good example of how profit comes before utility under late capitalism. The butt of many all-too-telling jokes, Microsoft is considering opening up its source code to get the benefit of free work from outside programmers. But there is a sting in the tail: Microsoft is apparently looking at ways to copyright the improvements.

To counter this, some open source adherents have developed what they call “copyleft,” as opposed to copyright. On joining a software development project, a programmer agrees to a licence condition not to use the code for private gain. The “public domain” operating system, Linux, is being built this way, and there is a huge community of non-profit developers working on software applications of every type — including programs to counter censorship.

The Internet is awash with exciting possibilities, and resisting its privatisation is vital. The Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) was defeated largely through a concerted campaign organised on the Net. When Kurdish leader, Abdullah Ocalan, was grabbed by the Turkish government, protests broke out across the planet, coordinated through e-mail. In contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, the existence of instant news on the WWW exposed NATO propaganda about “smart weapons” and “collateral damage.” And Sub-commandante Marcos, spokesperson for the Zapatista Liberation Front, has for years exposed Mexican government brutality via a laptop and satellite dish.

Corporations move capital at will, holding countries to economic ransom while corralling workers inside national borders. The Internet, by permitting the free exchange of ideas, has enormous potential as a tool for liberation. Revolution is, first and foremost, a battle of ideas. Capitalism has, until now, had a monopoly on the mass media. With something in the order of 100 million users, the World Wide Web is the most pervasive information medium, and the media tycoons have to compete for cyberspace with the thoughts of ordinary “netizens.” Let’s drown them out entirely!

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