The 25th Anniversary of the WWW: Transition to Socialism or Regression into Barbarism?

The 25th Anniversary of the WWW: Transition to Socialism or Regression into Barbarism?
Christian Fuchs

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Svilen.milev (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

1. The WWW and Capitalism

When Tim Berners Lee created the World Wide Web (WWW) in 1989 – 25 years ago – he conceived it as an “open medium”, in which “anybody could connect to anything” and everyone can connect to websites “no matter who I am”. The very idea of the WWW includes open standards that are globally agreed and allow everyone to develop and offer new services, a decentralised architecture, and the promotion of open source software. This system reflects cyberlibertarian ideas of free information flow and free speech that cannot be controlled by governments.

At the same time there was also a digital-communist reality at the heart of the WWW: Tim Berners Lee made the WWW available to anyone without payment as a commonly shared architecture for the publishing of information, communication, sharing, collaboration and community formation. The WWW’s common architecture is not only an open resource for citizens, also companies do not have to pay for it, which makes it a gratis resource for capital that invites corporate colonisation of the WWW. The WWW is in this respect comparable to public service infrastructures such as transport systems, education and health care institutions, or the pension system. Such public goods all have a dual character that at the same time immanently stabilises and transcends capitalism. It would however be a mistake to argue that the unpaid access to the WWW has made it a mere idiot serving capital. The option that users have to pay an access fee every time they enter the WWW via a web browser or a flat access fee for a specific duration is a much worse alternative. A free access system is a better option than one, in which you have to pay a fee every time you attend school, university or a doctor. If everyone has to pay a direct flat fee for access to the WWW, schools, universities, a hospital or a doctor, then the likely result is that poor people and lower-income families and individuals get no access at all or only a form of second-class access. One specific intrinsic value of the WWW is that it has to a specific degree resisted this logic of class structuration. This has become evident in the by-and-large successful resistance against the abolishment of net neutrality. A cessation of net neutrality would allow Internet Service Providers to slow down specific Internet and WWW services, sites, platforms, types of content, applications, or devices and to charge users for faster access, which would result in new forms of commodification and inequalities that privilege resource-rich companies and organisations over everyday WWW- and Internet-users

2. The WWW and Corporate Ideology

In that the Internet has overthrown matter, challenges government control and that to the early days after the WWW’s take-off in the mid-1990s, the Grateful Dead’s lyricist John Perry Barlow who was involved in the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation proclaimed in 1996 the independence of cyberspace from governments in the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace that asked “[g]overnments of the Industrial World” to “leave us alone” in “Cyberspace, the new home of Mind”. Around the same time, conservative thinkers around the Progress and Freedom Foundation claimed in the Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age “create the new cyberspace environment is to create new property”. When these thinkers and along with them politicians, management gurus and “new media” companies said freedom they meant the unlimited freedom of private property to treat the WWW as a commercial space for accumulating capital. Corporate power on the WWW was desired, hailed, advanced and hardly questioned. Free market and free ownership became the corporate ideology of the WWW.

As a result, the most accessed websites in April 1999 were (according to Media Metrix) AOL, Microsoft, Yahoo, Lycos, Go Network, GeoCities, Excite, Time Warner Online, Blue Mountain Arts, AltaVista and Amazon. All of these companies in the end wanted to sell a thing or service – access to information and communication services, software, operating systems, entertainment content, various goods offered in online shopping malls, advertisements, merchandise, greeting cards, etc. The fact that among these leading websites that dominated the WWW in 1999 there was not a single one operated by a non-profit, non-commercial organisation indicates the reduction of freedom to freedom of capital on the WWW.

3. The WWW’s Shit Hits the Fan: The 2000 Dot-Com Crisis

By Michael Coghlan from Adelaide, Australia (Crisis? What Crisis?  Uploaded by tm) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Yet the WWW’s dominant practice of freedom was coming at a price. Information is a peculiar commodity because it is not used up by consumption, it can easily, quickly and cheaply be copied and transported, it can be consumed simultaneously by many people, it has large initial production costs (sunk cost rule) but low to zero reproduction costs, it can often only be sold when it becomes a “hit” as part of a broader portfolio (hit rule), and it has uncertain demand which causes high risks (nobody knows anything rule). Selling on the Internet is uncertain, risky and contradictory. The new economy hype was spurred by the search for high profits that could never be achieved in a sustainable manner since the 1970s. The WWW promised to be a new electronic frontier of capital accumulation, which resulted in the financialisation of the online economy. Large amounts of venture capital were invested into Internet start-ups and one after another WWW-company announced its initial public offering on the stock market. The difficulties of making profit in the information economy culminated in 2000 when the new economy financial bubble burst (“dot-com crisis”) and WWW-companies such as boo.com, freeinternet.com, open.com, pets.com, startups.com, theglobe.com, worldcom.com and many others went bankrupt. The promises expressed in stock market valuations could not live up to the reality of capital accumulation on the WWW.

4. The Materiality and Division of the WWW

The WWW’s first (and probably not last) economic crisis showed the materiality of the Web and that it is not the “home of the Mind” (Barlow) or the “overthrow of matter” (Dyson, Gilder, Keyworth, Toffler). It is rather a space, in which money and power act as material forces. To get on the WWW, you need a computer, laptop, mobile phone or tablet that is produced by physical labour and ends up as e-waste predominantly in developing countries, where these devices are disassembled under toxic conditions, pile up as heaps of junk and threaten the livelihood of humans and nature.

There has without a doubt been an impressive increase of the number of people who have access to the WWW and the Internet from 360 million in 2000 to 2.7 billion (40% of the world population) in 2013. But given that Internet access is a material question having to do with money, skills and motivation, the economically and culturally deprived people of the world are facing disadvantages in Internet and WWW access and use. As long as we live in a world class society – capitalism is not “world class”, but a worldwide class society – they will simply not be able to “catch” up and are bound to not at all use the WWW and certain technologies and services, or to use second-class services and devices (remember the trash computers that One Laptop Per Child wanted to sell to people and governments in developing countries?), or to not benefit to the same extent from technology as others do. Given the realities of class society’s global inequality, it is no surprise that in 2013 the Internet access rate has been 74.7% in Europe, but only 16.3% in Africa.


By Daderot (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

One can certainly point out in this context the “success” of the increase of African Internet users from 17 million in 2005 to 140 million in 2013 or China’s a Internet “success story”: China had an Internet access rate of 42.3%in 2012 compared to 1.78% in 2000, which makes it with more than 500 million users the country with the largest number of Internet users in absolute terms). But inequalities result with necessity in differentiated access to and benefits from the Internet, which makes it an illusion that the WWW can ever be democratic as long as classes and inequalities exist. The “growth of China” has been accompanied by a rise of Gini-inequality from 29.1 in 1981 to 41.1 in 2009. That the farmer in China’s poorest province Guizhou will finally be able to send an SMS does not make a true difference as long as the relational reality is that people in Hong Kong, Shanghai, New York and other parts of the world have the possibility and material capacities to live-stream movies on the WWW and the farmer besides staying physically poor also does not have such informational possibilities. Capitalism breeds global, regional, national and local structures of inequality that are reflected in complex manners by the WWW, the Internet and the media in general.

5. The Structural Discrimination of Alternatives on the WWW


By Christian Heilmann (Flickr: Eff Facebook) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Online freedom tends to be more understood as free speech instead of also as free beer. For Facebook online freedom means “the power to share and to make the world more open and connected” (Facebook). For Google, freedom is the organisation of “the world’s information” in order to “make it universally accessible and useful” and “make money without doing evil” (Google). YouTube conceives the essence of freedom as possibility “to connect, inform and inspire others across the globe and acts as a distribution platform for original content creators and advertisers large and small”. For Twitter, freedom is “to connect with people, express yourself and discover what’s happening” and “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly”. Instagram understands freedom as fast, beautiful and fun way to share your life with friends and family”. Pinterest means by freedom “collecting and organising things you love” (Pinterest). LinkedIn sees freedom in the possibility to “connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful”. tumblr conceives freedom as a way to “share the things you love” (tumblr). For Sina Weibo, freedom means to “allow users to connect and share information anywhere, anytime and with anyone on our platform” and “an array of online media and social networking services to our user to create a rich canvas for businesses and brand advertisers to connect and engage with their targeted audiences”. Tencent (QQ, WeChat) sees freedom in ”value-added Internet, mobile and telecom services and online advertising under the strategic goal of providing users with ‘one-stop online lifestyle services’” and in the possibility to “connect with friends across platforms” (WeChat). For VK, freedom is “a web resource that helps you stay in touch with your old and new friends” (VK). For WhatsApp, freedom is “a cross-platform mobile messaging app which allows you to exchange messages without having to pay for SMS” (WhatsApp). Corporate social media have hijacked the concept of free access and turned it into an ideology that tries to conceal the existence of a mode of capital accumulation that is based on the commodification of personal data and targeted advertising. Corporate social media present themselves as free, open and social, but are in reality unfree, closed and particularistic machines for the commodification of personal data that produce and sell targeted ads.

The problem is that Internet companies, consultants, managers and those who believe in their ideology do not see that freedom is, as Karl Marx stressed, a “realm of freedom” that is not based on the logic of profitability and accumulation, but the principle “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”, which implies that the “primary freedom” of the media “lies in not being a trade”. The consequences of the reduction of the WWW’s freedom to freedom of property, the market and trade have been that the WWW is today first and foremost a shopping mall and a huge advertising space, in which the world’s largest advertising agencies disguise themselves as “social media” and “mobile media” in order to garner and commodify personal data as “big data”. The WWW is the world’s biggest narcissistic self-presentation machine and individualising spectacle, in which users are not connected to WeTube, OurBook, OurSpace, but to YouTube, Facebook and MySpace in order to advertise their own selves to others. The task is to gain competitive advantages and accumulate reputation in order to be better “employable” and more successful. Individualism is designed into corporate “social” media platforms and has become a strategy of survival for many workers who tend to see themselves not as an exploited class, but reflect their existence as individual freelancers by conceiving themselves not as precarious workers, but as “knowledge professionals”, “middle class”, “makers” and “creatives”.

Being the world’s largest shop window and mall is the WWW’s dominant, but not its only reality. On the WWW, we also find critical-political online news media, such as AlterNet, Common Dreams, Democracy Now!, Free Spech TV, Indymedia, Occupy News Network, openDemocracy, Project Censored, Truth Out, TomDispatch, ZNet, and many others. There is also the alternative press that puts out printed journals or magazines and makes use of the WWW in its publishing efforts. Examples include Adbusters Magazine, In These Times, Left Business Observer, Mother Jones, N+1, The Nation, or The Progressive. On the WWW, there are also whistle-blowing and watchdog platforms such as Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations, China Labor Watch, Corporate Crime Reporter, Corporate Europe Observatory, Corporate Watch, CorpWatch, PR Watch, Students and Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour, or WikiLeaks.

The WWW also is the home of federated/distributed social networks and alternative social media such as Wikipedia, Diaspora that describes itself as “the privacy-aware, decentralized social network which puts users in control of their data security”, N-1 that says it is the “social network of the people and for the people”, identi.ca, StatusNet, Quitter – “a federation of microbloggers who care about ethics and solidarity and want to quit the centralist capitalist services” and that “will always be non-profit”, Vinilox, Load Average, Thimbl – “free, open source and distributed micro-blogging” that challenges “proprietary, centralized platforms like Twitter” that “exist only to capture profit”, and others.

Together such platforms and projects constitute an alternative WWW.

The alternative web is however confronted with structural inequalities: non-profit projects have more problems to mobilise resources than commercial projects that sell something and make profits. Alternative web platforms face hierarchies of visibility and reputation an compete with monopoly- and oligopoly-capitalist platforms that lock in users. Although the Internet and the WWW have a decentralised technological structure, there is a centralised architecture of power that today governs these systems’ usage, application, and their structures of influence, visibility and attention. Setting up, operating and maintaining alternative WWW platforms as well as trying to compete with capitalist platforms is often precarious and difficult. The capitalist WWW structurally discriminates the alternative WWW. As a consequence, capitalist platforms dominate the WWW and alternative ones are more marginal: Google, Facebook, YouTube, QQ, LinkedIn, Twitter, Sina, Blogspot, Weibo, VK, Pinterest, tumblr and Instagram were on March 13, 2014, in the list of the most accessed websites of the world ranked on positions #1, #2, #3, #7, #8, #10, #13, #16, #17, #23, #28, #35, #37. Some of the federated social networks were in contrast ranked on positions #68,507 (Identi.ca), #96,497 (Diaspora), #98,516 (StatusNet), #265,098 (N-1), #1,587,492 (Thimbl), #2,212, 575 (Quitter), #5,736,695 (Load Average), #6,047,362 (Vinilox). Whereas the websites of mainstream news organisations such as the Huffington Post (#82), Daily Mail (#101), India Times (#108), New York Times (#118), Fox News (#164) occupied top positions, some of the alternative news platforms were only ranked on positions #3,828 (AlterNet), #13,064 (WikiLeaks), #17,185 (Democracy Now!), #19,139 (Common Dreams), #20,319 (Truth Out), or #66,068 (Open Democracy). Alternative WWW projects are also not save from co-optation and capitalist subsumption as the example of Creative Commons open access journals and open access book publishers shows: Most of them are alternative, non-profit academic publishing projects, but some open access projects have developed into predatory companies that accept all articles and charge authors high article processing fees in order to accumulate capital.

Edward Snowden’s revelations have shown the existence of a global surveillance system that secret services such as the NSA and GCHQ use for monitoring communications, the Internet and the WWW. On the one hand the reaction to these revelations were the standard cyberlibertarian concerns over state institutions’ invasion of individual privacy. Privacy International for example describes Prism as “widespread and invasive spying regime operated by the US National Security Agency, with the complicity of officials entrusted to protect the rights of citizens, carried out by the world’s supposed beacon of democracy”. Prism for Privacy International underpins “the lack of legal protections in place to protect the privacy of people around the world”. On the other hand it is hard to only blame the state because it has become evident that communications and WWW companies such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo! and AOL! and private security companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton are complicit in mass surveillance, from which they derive monetary profits. Snowden’s revelations do not show the existence of state surveillance, but of a surveillance-industrial complex, in which the combination of corporate power and state power controls communications, the Internet and the WWW. If Snowden had remained silent, would Facebook, Google and the other companies involved in Prism ever have revealed the existence of this surveillance system? This seems very unlikely, although many of these companies now want to make use believe that they are also opposed to the very surveillance that they help conducting.

6. Towards an Alternative WWW?


Tim Berners-Lee. By Enrique Dans from Madrid, Spain (Con Tim Berners-Lee) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Given the alarming status of the WWW 25 years after he founded it, Tim Berners-Lee voiced his concerns. He stressed that the WWW was founded as a common and public system: “The web is now a public resource on which people, businesses, communities and governments depend. It is vital to democracy and now more critical to free expression than any other medium”. The web would in 2014 face massive threats: “I believe that the future of the web is under threat from some governments that may abuse their powers, some businesses that may try to undermine the open market, and from criminal activity. In recent years we have seen a steady increase in censorship of the web by governments around the world. We’ve seen a proliferation of corporate walled gardens, excessively punitive laws pertaining to copyright and computer misuse, and attempts to undermine or disregard net neutrality. But mass surveillance, and particularly the reported attempts by intelligence agencies in the US and UK to break commercial encryption systems to make it easier to spy on people, is the most worrying of all, because it could engender a loss of trust and lead to Balkanisation of the web”. Berners-Lee questions corporate and state control of the WWW and the Internet, but the question is if the accumulation logics of corporations and state control agencies such as secret services do not always and fundamentally pose a threat to the WWW, freedom and democracy. If so, then we need a WWW that is independent from particularistic control and colonisation – an alternative WWW.

Tim Berners-Lee calls for action to save the WWW: “The future of the web depends on ordinary people taking responsibility for this extraordinary resource and challenging those who seek to manipulate the web against the public good”. He continues: “We need a global constitution – a bill of rights. […] Unless we have an open, neutral internet we can rely on without worrying about what’s happening at the back door, we can’t have open government, good democracy, good healthcare, connected communities and diversity of culture. It’s not naive to think we can have that, but it is naive to think we can just sit back and get it. […] The removal of the explicit link to the US department of commerce is long overdue. The US can’t have a global place in the running of something which is so non-national. There is huge momentum towards that uncoupling but it is right that we keep a multi-stakeholder approach, and one where governments and companies are both kept at arm’s length”.


Rosa Luxemburg

Many users definitely share Berners-Lee’s concerns about the WWW’s particularistic control. The important question is if an alternative to the controlled and colonised WWW – a web that serves the common and public good – can be achieved within the framework of capitalism and the capitalist state. I strongly doubt it. To paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, we can say that after 25 years, the WWW “stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism”. A public debate about radical reforms of the media system, the Internet and the WWW is urgently needed.

Christian Fuchs is professor of social media at the University of Westminster and author of books such as Social Media: A Critical Introduction , Digital Labour and Karl Marx, Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies, or Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age.

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