Remarks on the BBC documentary “Virtual Revolution: The Cost of Free “

The BBC recently aired a documentary in its ”Virtual Revolution“ series that focused on ”The Cost of Free“. The overall topic were the risks and problems posed by Internet platforms that are operated by corporations such as Google, Facebook, Yahoo, News Corporation, and others. The documentary is available online:
There is also a BBC online debate about the issues the documentary brings up.

Interviewees included: Chris Anderson (Wired magazine), John Battelle (author of “The Search”), Tim Berners-Lee (inventor of the WWW), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), danah boyd (Microsoft Research), Shami Chakrabarti (director of the civil rights group Liberty), Stephen Fry (actor, writer, director, presenter), David Gallagher (New York Times), Bill Gates (Microsoft), Seth Goldstein (Attention Trust), Reed Hastings (Netflix), Andrew Keen (author of “The Cult of the Amateur”), Martha Lane Fox (, James Marcus (Amazon), Douglas Rushkoff (author of “Life Inc”), Eric Schmidt (Google), Nigel Shadbolt (University of Southampton), Terry Winograd (Stanford University), Steve Wozniak (Apple).

The documentary maintains that online activities like searching on Google, uploading pictures on Flickr, or using social networking sites such as Facebook or Myspae, seem to be free, but come at a price: the disclosure of private information to companies that sell these data to advertising clients in order to make money profit.

Amazon is presented as one of the early pioneers that advanced the commercialization of the web in the 1990s. Google is seen as big money-making machine that makes use of the ethos of free access to information, turns users into commodities, and is building a monopoly in Internet advertising. The documentary also presents the case of AOL that in 2006 released a file that contained the searches 650,000 users made over a period of three months. The file did not contain the names of the persons who conducted the searches, but the data was so intimate that in many cases it allowed the identification of the users.

The documentary shows that officials of Internet companies such as Amazon, Google, or Netflix tend to argue that targeted advertising and targeted recommendation systems that are based on online data surveillance enrich the users’ experience and provide them with information that they could find interesting. It is no accident, that there is so much talk about the importance of user experience in the Internet industry and in Human Computer Interaction research. So for example, Reed Hastings, founder and CEO of the online movie provider Netflix, says: “It is all about pleasing the consumer”. Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, says: “The average person seems very pragmatic about it. As long as it works and as long as all the laws are followed, they seem perfectly happy to share personal information to make their experience better”. However, there are many voices in this documentary that express doubts about these positive views.

The maker of the documentary, Aleks Krotoski, maintains that our “thoughts and desires that we express online are being traced, tracked, and traded in pursuit of profit”. She speaks of the ”brave new web” and remarks: “In return for our free web, our privacy has become a commodity. We are economic units in what has become the new commercial frontier”. Douglas Rushkoff, author of “Life Inc”, says: “The product online is not the content, the product online is you!”. “And the darker side of the web, to some extent includes the ability of those behind the screen, those who are providing this space for you, to monitor you”, argues Shami Chakrabarati, who is director of the civil rights group Liberty.

Krotoski quotes from a research paper of the Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin: “We believe the issue of advertising causes enough mixed incentives that it is crucial to have a competitive search engine that is transparent and in the academic realm”. Google today no longer stays in line with these intellectual roots, it stores and analyzes all information searches in order to sell targeted advertisings.

In my view the documentary does not make exactly clear what the problem of the large-scale surveillance of information behaviour on the Internet by companies actually is. Is surveillance the problem as such? Is it an intrinsic or extrinsic problem? If it is extrinsic, then surveillance needs to be seen as constituting a problem in relation to its societal context. One can imagine societies, where voluntary sharing of personal data and resulting data collection and storage does not bring potential disadvantages such as job loss, an advertising spam flood, stalking, harassment, etc. But unfortunately we do not live in such a world, and therefore privacy protection mechanisms are needed. The implications of surveillance in a stratified world are causing problems. Stratification of modern societies means that certain groups and individuals compete for the control and increase of resourses. Therefore they have to consider others as their opponents. Certain groups and individuals benefit from certain circumstances at the expense of others. Such competitive relations can be found in all realms of modern society, such as the economy, politics, culture, and personal relations. Given competitive relations, information about personal preferences and individual behaviour can cause harm to individuals if it gets into the hands of their opponents or others who might have an interest in harming them. Large-scale data gathering and surveillance in a society that is based on the principle of competition poses certain threats to the well-being of all citizens. Therefore special privacy protection mechanisms are needed. All large collections of data pose the threat of being accessed by individuals who want to harm others. If such collections are owned privately, then access to data might be sold because there is an economic interest in accumulating money.

Another problem of online data surveillance by corporations is that it is inherently linked to economic class formation and exploitation. I have described this circumstance in more detail in a recent paper that was published by the journal Media, Culture & Society: Fuchs, Christian. 2010. Class, knowledge and new media. Media, Culture & Society 32 (1): 141-150 (

I argue in this paper that obviously targeted online advertising produces money profit for Internet corporations and that therefore the question arises, who creates economic value on web 2.0. Critical political economist Dallas Smythe in his seminal paper “On the audience commodity and its work” suggested that advertising business models of the media are not primarily based on the commodification of content, but the commodification of the audience. Although also content may be sold as a commodity (you buy a newspaper or magazine for 1 euro, etc), the primary source of economic value for many commercial media is that they sell their audience to advertising clients and thereby accumulate capital. With the rise of user-generated content and free access social networking platforms and other free access platforms that yield profit by online advertisement, the world wide web seems to come close to accumulation strategies employed by the capital on traditional mass media like TV or radio.

The users who google data, upload or watch videos on YouTube, upload or browse personal images on Flickr, or accumulate friends with whom they exchange content or communicate online via social networking platforms like MySpace or Facebook, constitute an audience commodity that is sold to advertisers. The difference between the audience commodity on traditional mass media and on the Internet is that in the latter the users are also content producers; there is user-generated content, the users engage in permanent creative activity, communication, community building and content-production. That the users are more active on the Internet than in the reception of TV or radio content is due to the decentralized structure of the Internet, which allows many-to-many communication. Due to the permanent activity of the recipients and their status as producers, I would argue, in the case of the Internet, that the audience commodity is a produser commodity. The category of the produser commodity does not signify a democratization of the media towards participatory systems, but the total commodification of human creativity. Much of the time spent online produces profit for large corporations like Google, News Corp. (which owns MySpace), or Yahoo! (which owns Flickr). Advertisements on the Internet are frequently personalized; this is made possible by surveilling, storing and assessing user activities with the help of computers and databases. This is another difference from TV and radio, which provide less individualized content and advertisements due to their more centralized structure.

I have argued in my book “Internet and Society” that in the digital economy we find an antagonism between the networked productive forces and the class-based relations of production that are based on private ownership. We can observe this very well in the case of Google and other web 2.0 platforms. At the level of the technological productive forces, we see that Google advances socialization, the co-operative and common character of the online-productive forces: Google tools are available for free, Google Documents allows the collaborative creation of documents; GMail, Blogger, and Buzz enable social networking and communication, YouTube supports sharing videos, Google Scholar and Google Books help better access worldwide academic knowledge, etc. These are all applications that can give great benefits to humans. But at the level of the relations of production, Google is a profit-oriented, advertising-financed money-making machine that turns users and their personal data into a commodity. And the result is large-scale surveillance and the immanent undermining of liberal democracy’s intrinsic privacy value. Liberal democratic values thereby constitute their own limit and immanent critique.

So on the level of the productive forces, Google and other web 2.0 platforms anticipate a commons-based public Internet from which all benefit, whereas the freedom (free service access) that it provides is now enabled by online surveillance and user commodification that threatens privacy. Google is a nice prototypical example for the antagonisms between networked productive forces and capitalist relations of production of the information economy.

But are there alternatives?

Eben Moglen, who is professor of law and legal history at Columbia University, gave a talk on “Freedom in the cloud: software freedom, privacy and security for web 2.0 and cloud computing” on February 5, 2010 ( He suggested an Internet architecture, in which every user has a personal web server that s/he can put in his/her pocket, plug in at any place, that stores all personal online data, keeps log files, connects to the Internet, and sends encrypted back-ups of data to the users’ friends servers in case that they communicate with them. The architecture would be easy to realize, all hardware and systems, and software would be available and could be operated with the help of free software. Moglen describes a way for restoring the autonomy of users as owners of their data. If such an Internet architecture is implemented, this will inevitably require struggles for the release of personal data to users and the cleanup of these data on the servers of Google, Facebook, MySpace, Yahoo, etc because one can bet that these corporations will rather be unwilling to decommodify the Internet prosumer commodity.

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