(Un-)Freedom in the Age of Social Media

(Un-)Freedom in the Age of Social Media
Christian Fuchs

By Fekner (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

Immanuel Kant defined the liberal concept of freedom in the context of the autonomy of the human will that he saw as “the supreme principle of morality” (Kant 1785, 109). He conceptualised freedom as humans’ understanding of how to make “public use of man’s reason” for “addressing the entire reading public” (Kant 1784, 4), whereby enlightenment would become possible as “man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity” (Kant 1784, 7). Jürgen Habermas (2011, 14) has pointed out that Kant’s concept of freedom and his categorical imperative that is grounded on it form the foundation of the liberal principles of human rights. The principle of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that all “human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” and “are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood” (§1) reflects Kant’s philosophy.

Karl Marx and Max Horkheimer criticised the individualism characteristic for Kant’s concept of freedom. Marx wrote: “Kant was satisfied with ‘good Will’ alone, even if it remained entirely without result, and he transferred the realisation of this good will, the harmony between it and the needs and impulses of individuals, to the world beyond” (Marx and Engels 1845, 208). Horkheimer (1933, 24) pointed out that Kant’s philosophy has an “idealist trait, according to which all would be right in the world so long as all were right in Spirit”.

On a practical and political level, the legitimation of the individualistic concept of freedom that proclaims unlimited freedom of private property expresses itself in an antagonism between the freedom of private property on the one hand and social freedom as well as social justice on the other hand. In the Universal Declaration of Human Rights this circumstance manifests itself as an antagonism between §17 (Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others) and §22 (Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security). The increase of distributive injustice at national and global level in the context of 35 years of continuous neoliberal regulation of capitalism shows this foundational antagonism between liberal ideology and capitalist reality (Therborn 2013).

How do the conditions and possibilities of freedom look like in the age of so-called “social media“ such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Weibo or Wikipedia (see Fuchs 2014b)? Tabloid media, populist politics and one-dimensional academia often argue that social media caused Twitter and Facebook revolutions in the Arab Spring, result in more democracy, freedom of expression and a diversity of opinion, as well as an increase of general wealth. These liberal promises of freedom are however confronted with an antagonistic reality of unfreedom and control on the Internet.

Apple promises the users of iPads, iPhones and MacBooks “wireless freedom“, whereas this “freedom“ is grounded in the actual material unfreedom of hardware assemblers in Chinese Foxconn factories, where they manufacture Apple and other technologies under inhumane working conditions, including long working hours, poor pay and military controls (Fuchs 2014a). Facebook says that it gives users “the power to share and to make the world more open and connected”. Google praises itself by claiming that it makes “money without doing evil”. At the same time both companies have outsourced their financial structures to tax havens so that in 2011 they respectively paid only 1.5% (Google) and 0.1% (Fabeook) of their annual British revenues in corporation tax, although the corporation tax rate was 26%. Neoliberal states reacted to the global crisis of capitalism by ”socialism“ for banks and the rich that used working people’s taxes for bailouts to rehabilitate the financial system. States’ main reaction to the resulting budget holes have been austerity measures that hit the poorest and weakest, whereas global Internet companies (and other corporations) hardly pay taxes and legitimate this circumstance with the argument that they do not operate within nation states, but in the placeless space of the Internet.

Right-wing politicians demand on the one hand privacy and secrecy for military and secret service operations, in which civilians and journalists are killed and millions of citizens are being spied on, and criminalise those who strive to make such circumstances public with the help of the Internet (WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, The Guardian). On the other hand they treat privacy with a class moral that wants to restrict its protection for those in power, whereas the personal data of millions of Internet users are controlled by a military-industrial surveillance complex (Prism), in which secret services collaborate with private security companies such as Booz Allen Hamilton and communication corporations such as AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Paltalk, Skype and Yahoo!. Facebook, Twitter and Google exploit users’ digital labour by commodifying their personal data as part of new capital accumulation models that use targeted advertising.

Whereas the Internet’s dominant ideology promises freedom, the reality is that capitalist and state actors are in the online world “freer“ than others, which shows this space’s actual unfreedom. But we can also hear the protest voices of actors such as Anonymous, hacker organisations, the movement for free software and open access, investigative journalists, consumer protection organisations, media reform movements such as Free Press or the Media Reform Coalition, human rights organisation, pirate parties, watchdog organisations and WikiLeaks. They call for more Internet freedom and privacy.

These actors illustrate the negative reality of the dialectic of Enlightenment and liberalism’s limits: the practices of data commodification, capitalist media control, corporate and state surveillance limit the liberal freedoms of freedoms of thought, speech, press and assembly as well as the security of the people’s persons, houses, papers and effects. When the Internet and “social“ media are, as Horkheimer and Adorno (2002, 73f) say, “harnessed to the dominant mode of production”, the enlightenment that these modes of communication promise, “nullifies itself”.

So when for example the Anonymous movement questioned how police violence limited Occupy activists’ freedom of opinion and assembly, it strictly affirmed liberal values, but showed at the same time how state institutions violate liberal values in the land of unlimited “freedom”. A liberal critique of the unfreedom implied by the control systems that liberalism has created is however insufficient. A comprehensive system of participatory democracy is needed to overcome the limits of freedom cause by capitalist and state control of the media, the attention economy, power, reputation structures and the public.

Profitable global corprorations control the Internet and social media. Whereas in Europe there is a tradition of public service broadcasting and of acknowledging public service’s importance for the flourishing of democracy, we are so accustomed to Google, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft’s control of the Internet and digital media that the idea of a public service Internet seems completely alien to us. At the same time Prism and the continuous public criticisms of Google and Facebook show the need for alternatives. There are just 2 alternative models among the 100 most accessed web platforms in the world: the BBC’s website and the non-commercial online encyclopaedia Wikipedia.

It is about time that we start thinking about re-inventing the Internet, decolonising it and transforming it into a true public sphere. Based on Mahatma Gandhi, who when asked what he thinks about Western civilisation answered “I think it would be a good idea”, we can today say: Social media would be a good idea if it were truly free and public. Social media is possible, but for the time being remains a Blochian not-yet.

Christian Fuchs is professor of social media at the
University of Westminster and author of the book “Social Media: A Critical Introduction“. The topic of Internet freedom, social media and the public sphere will be subject of his inauguration lecture “Social Media and the Public Sphere“ on February 19, 2014, and his keynote talk at the conference Freedom of Information under Pressure: Control – Crisis – Culture (Vienna, February 28-March 1, 2014).

Fuchs, Christian. 2014a. Digital Labour and Karl Marx. New York: Routledge.

Fuchs, Christian. 2014b. Social Media: A Critical Introduction. London: Sage.

Habermas, Jürgen. 2011. Zur Verfassung Europas. Ein Essay. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Horkheimer, Max. 1933. Materialism and Morality. In Between Philosophy and Social Science, 15-47 . Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Horkheimer, Max and Theodor W. Adorno. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kant, Immanuel. 1784. An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? In The Idea of the Public Sphere. A Reader, ed. Jostein Gripsrud, Hallvard Moe, Anders Molander and Graham Murdock, 3-8. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Kant, Immanuel. 1785. Groundworks of the Metaphysics of Morals. A German-English Edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1845. The German Ideology. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Therborn, Göran. 2013. The Killing Fields of Inequality. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Inauguration Lecture: Social Media and the Public Sphere

Christian Fuchs: Social Media and the Public Sphere
Inauguration lecture

February, 19, 2014. 18:00-21:00
University of Westminster. London W1B 2HW
309 Regent Street
The Old Cinema
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Social media has become a key term in Media and Communication Studies and public discourse for characterising platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Wikipedia, LinkedIn, WordPress, Blogspot, Weibo, Pinterest, Foursquare and Tumblr. This lecture will discuss the implications of social media for power structures in society, the economy and politics. The lecture will first discuss the question “What is social about social media?”. Providing answers requires a social theory understanding of what it means to be social. The lecture will explore different concepts of the social and relate them to the realm of the media.Social media are an expression of the tendency that in contemporary society boundaries become liquid. The distinctions between the private and the public, play and labour (playbour, digital labour), work and leisure, production and consumption (prosumption), individual and collective action, online and offline, networking and autonomy, spatial distance and co-presence, anonymity and knowledge, presence and absence, appearance and disappearance, and visibility and invisibility, are blurring. This lecture will discuss what risks and opportunities these changes imply for society. Many political and academic discussions about the implications of social media for society are concentrated on the question of whether social media enhance or endanger various dimensions of the public sphere. Whereas some say that social media make the economy more democratic and have been used as tools of revolutions and democratisation (‘revolution 2.0’, ‘Twitter/Facebook revolution’), others hold that social media are first and foremost instruments of control and commerce. The lecture will engage with Habermas’ concept of the public sphere and discuss social media’s variety of implications for the structural transformation of the public sphere.Whereas we are accustomed to the idea of public service broadcasting, an understanding of how a public service internet could look and be advanced is largely missing. This lecture wants to contribute to the public discussion of how the social dimension of the internet and the media can serve the public interest, the concept of a public service internet and how ideas for specific organisation, policy and funding models could look like.


More about Prof. Christian Fuchs:

Christian Fuchs joined the University of Westminster as Professor of Social Media in February 2013. He was previously Professor of Media and Communication Studies at Uppsala University in Sweden. His research focuses on digital media and society, media andsociety and information society studies. He is Chair of the European Sociological Association’s Research Network 18 – Sociology of Communications and Media Research, editor of tripleC – Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, and co-founder of the ICTs and Society-Network. He is Vice-Chair of the EU COST Network, ‘Dynamics of Virtual Work’.

Christian Fuchs published more than 200 academic works, including the books Internet and Society: Social Theory in the Information Age (Routledge 2008); Foundations of Critical Media and Information Studies (Routledge 2011); and Social Media: A Critical Introduction (Sage 2014), Digital Labour and Karl Marx (Routledge 2014). He is co-editor of Internet and Surveillance: The Challenges of Web 2.0 and Social Media (Routledge 2012);Critique, Social Media & the Information Society (Routledge 2013, with Marisol Sandoval); and Social Media, Politics and the State: Protests, Revolutions, Riots, Crime and Policing in the Age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube (Routledge 2014, with Daniel Trottier).

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“Castells and Jenkins: … these approaches are terribly flawed”: An interview with Christian Fuchs

Conducted by Pasko Bilic
First published on the Sociologija Media Blog

An interview covering topics such as critical media and communication studies, media sociology, interdisciplinarity, Karl Marx, social theory, the digital labour theory of value, social media, the Internet, Manuel Castells, Henry Jenkins, PRISM and global surveillance, Occupy and media reforms.

Dr. Christian Fuchs is Professor of Social Media at the Communication and Media Research Institute and the Centre for Social Media Research, University of Westminster, London, UK. He is the author of “Internet and society: Social theory in the information age” (Routledge 2008), “Foundations of critical media and information studies” (Routledge 2011) and the forthcoming monographs “Digital labor and Karl Marx” (Routledge 2014), “Social media: A critical introduction” (Sage 2014) and “OccupyMedia! The Occupy movement and social media in crisis capitalism” (Zero Books 2014). He has co-edited the collected volume “Internet and surveillance: The challenges of web 2.0 and social media” (Routledge 2012) and the forthcoming volumes “Critique, social media and the information society” (Routledge 2014) and “Social media, politics and the state. Protests, revolutions, riots, crime and policing in the age of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube” (Routledge 2014). He is editor of “tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique”, Chair of the European Sociological Association’s Research Network 18 – Sociology of Communications and Media Research, co-founder of the ICTs and Society network and Vice-Chair of the European Union COST Action “Dynamics of Virtual Work”. We met up with Christian in October in Athens, Greece during the COST action meeting and conference.

1) What first got you interested in media and communication studies?

My background is social informatics and I was interested in computing. On the other hand, I come from Austria where we have a far-right party – the FPÖ– that has been very strong for many decades and they were using media for spreading right-wing extremist ideologies. Jörg Haider was not just a right-wing extremist political and ideological phenomenon, but also a media spectacle. So I was interested in how the media are used for disseminating these ideologies. Austria has one of the highest media concentrations in the press sector and a tabloid called KronenZeitung which has often supported these extremists and their racist propaganda. So my interests were on the one hand computing and its implications for society and on the other hand media and ideology. Also, my academic background is very interdisciplinary because besides my PhD in informatics I did my habilitation in ICTs and Society within the Faculty of Cultural and Social Sciences at the University of Salzburg. Most of my life I have worked in interdisciplinary departments. Of course media and communication is in itself interdisciplinary. For example, I recently looked at the special issue of the Journal of Communication from 1983 called “Ferment in the Field” where scholars discussed whether Media and Communication Studies was a discipline, a field, or even isolated ˝frog ponds˝ which was actually one of the views expressed by the Swedish scholar Karl Erik Rosengren. What makes up the interdisciplinarity of Media and Communication Studies were for example media economics, critical communication studies, political communication, media psychology, etc.

2) How did your interests change over the years and how do you see the field of media and communication studies today?

My interest in computing and media ideology did not change. Of course the media landscape changes, and the context in which the media are situated changes. There are differences between how the World Wide Web looked like in the nineties with the first hypertext systems and what it looks like now. Now there are “social media” which are in reality not that new although the appearance has changed. We are now also in a big economic and societal crisis. But the field in general has always been rather administrative, serving dominant interests. On the other hand there has always been some basis in the critical thinking of the Frankfurt school, British cultural studies, and Marxist political economy. This special issue of the Journal of Communication I mentioned earlier was also divided in this way. However, later issues showed that critical voices were less present. In the 1980s mainstream publications such as the Journal of Communication were still putting out some critical articles but now it is completely administrative and this is, I think, not how the media and communication studies should look like. Since the global crisis unfolded in 2008 critical scholarship has started flourishing again, especially among PhD students and early stage scholars who are fed up with the neoliberal restructuring of the academic field, with precarious employment and so on. Young academics have all the reasons to be angry, and naturally anger gets to a certain extent expressed in critical thinking. There is a general turn towards critical thinking, radical theory, anti-capitalist and Marxist theory nowadays.

3) In your work you rely heavily on the writings of Karl Marx. Where do you see the relevance of this 19th century theorist in the 21st century?

I do not terribly like the way you phrased this question because somehow it gives the perception of Marx as being outdated, old, that society is new and has completely changed through neoliberalism and so on. This was the point made by Baudrillard who said that we cannot explain postmodern society through Marx because Marx is a 19th century theorist and he did not talk about the media and so on. I would however have suggested to Baudrillard that he should have read Marx more carefully because there is a lot in Marx that helps us understand the media within the context of society. Quite obviously there is a huge crisis of capitalism, of the state, imperialism and ideology. It is not only a financial crisis because it goes beyond the financial sector. In volume three of Capital Marx very thoroughly discussed the mechanisms of financialization. He also very closely analysed class and class relations and inequalities. Nobody can claim today that we are not living in a class society. The ruling class enforces austerity measures and we have deepening inequalities. So these are all social issues. If we look at the media side and the ICTs in this context the question is can Marx somehow help us? I think that Baudrillard and similarly minded people were and are very superficial readers of Marx because Marx even anticipated the information society in his claims about the development of technological productive forces, and that knowledge in production would become increasingly important. Some also say that Marx did not understand the networked media, but then again Marx for example analyses the telegraph and its importance for society and how technology impacts society in the context of the globalization of the economy and communication. I even claim in my forthcoming book “Social Media: A Critical Introduction” that Marx invented the Internet in a striking passage of the Grundrisse. He described in a very anticipatory manner that in the global information system people inform themselves about others and are creating connections to each other. So the idea of social networking is there and the idea of networked information and a hypertext of global information are already there. So actually the World Wide Web was not invented by Tim Berners-Lee but by Karl Marx in 1857. Of course the technological foundations did not exist and also the computer did not exist as technology. But I think that, conceptually, Marx did invent the internet.

4) Karl Marx was largely focused on labour as a basic human activity. How does his labour theory relate to contemporary media and communication processes? Where do you see the border between labour and play in contemporary social media environments?

There is an anthropological element that Marx stresses. How humans have differentiated themselves from animals and how society has become differentiated has to do with purposeful human activity and self-conscious thinking. What distinguishes a bee from an architect is that the architect always imagines the result of what he produces before he produces it. This anticipatory thinking is at the heart of all human work processes. Work takes its organisational forms through social relations within specific societal formations – for example in the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist mode of the organisation of society. Then the labour theory of value comes in. Some say this is vital for social media, some say we do not need this theory because it is completely outdated. There is a lot of misunderstanding about the labour theory of value. When I read articles about this topic I always look at the basic concepts used besides value and labour. A lot of people use the terms money and profit, not understanding that labour theory of value is a theory of time in society and the capitalist economy. The crucial thing about how Marx conceptualizes value is that there is a substance of value and a measure of value. Human labour power is the substance of value whereas labour time in specific spaces is the measure of value. The labour value is the average time it takes to produce a commodity. How does this relate to what is called social media? The claim that the labour theory of value is no longer valid implies that time plays no role in the contemporary capitalist economy. Attention and reputation can be accumulated and getting attention for social media does not happen simply by putting the information there – it requires the work of creating the attention. The groups on Facebook and Twitter with the largest number of followers and likes are the ones of entertainers and companies who employ people such as social media strategists to take care of their social media presence. So we need to conceptualize value with a theory of time. Therefore, I am interested in establishing theories of time in society, time in economy and media theory.

5) In his recent work Manuel Castells stated that the most fundamental form of power lies in the ability to shape the human mind. This may be easier to comprehend in the mass media environment where media content is shaped with a specific purpose to control and direct human behaviour, for example through advertising or political campaigns. However, with social media the users produce the content themselves. Where do you see this type of power exercised in the social media environment and how is it different from the mass media environment?

I will try to answer this question in the context of two dominant theories of how social media are being conceptualized: Castells´ theory of media and the network society and Henry Jenkins´ theory of participatory culture. I think both of these approaches are terribly flawed. Jenkins celebrates corporatist capitalist culture and how it is monetized. The concept of power from Castells is based on the Weber´s definition of power as a coercive force that exists everywhere. However there is also altruistic behaviour in our lives at home, with friends and elsewhere. There is life beyond domination. Of course we live in dominative societies but I believe in a sort of Enlightenment ideal of emancipation of society and that people can rule themselves. For me power means the ability of people to shape and control the structures of society. So power can be distributed in different forms. There are also different forms of power: economic power, decision-making power in politics, cultural power. The problem is that these forms of power are unequally distributed. Now here comes Jenkins who claims that culture has become participatory and we today all create culture in a democratic process. Of course, there are changes you cannot deny since it is easy to shoot a video on your mobile phone and put it on the internet. But does this mean that society becomes immediately democratized? I doubt it. Both Jenkins and Castells are technological determinists. Jenkins does not even realize where the concept of participation comes from in a theoretical sense and does not mention earlier forms and attempts of creating more participation such as the student movement’s vision of participatory democracy in the 1960s. Structures of control in the economy today and in the political system are based on power asymmetries. Although we produce information ourselves this does not mean that all people benefit from it to the same extent.

6) Recent surveillance scandals exposed by Edward Snowden have shown that the companies are not the only ones taking advantage of citizens´ digital footprints online. Do you see any alternatives to these events? How can we achieve a truly open and participatory internet taking all these risks into account?

The Prism scandal has shown that states have access to a lot of social media. However, we have to put this phenomenon in a broader context. What has emerged is a sort of surveillance-industrial complex where you have spy agencies conducting massive surveillance in collaboration with private companies. Facebook was involved, Skype, Apple and others. Snowden was also working for a private security company – Booz Allen – and the state outsourced surveillance to this private company and other ones. Security is a very profitable sector within the economy. We must also see the ideological context of these events that goes back to the post 9-11 situation. A spiral of war and violence was developing after these events and it was claimed that there is a technological fix to terrorism and organized crime and that there are terrorist and criminals everywhere around us. The suggested highly ideologically motivated solution was to introduce more surveillance technologies to prevent organized crime and terrorism. This was very one-dimensional and short sighted. What has developed in the online sphere is corporate and state control. From a liberal perspective this threatens the basic liberties we have or that we think we have in modern society. The question is how do we get out of this situation and what changes of the Internet and society do we need? We do have things like the Pirate party struggling for freedom of information, people concerned about privacy, critical journalists concerned about press freedom, the Occupy movement and so on. They all seem, however, terribly unconnected but in the time of crisis of the whole capitalist society their reactions, if combined in a network, would be a force for defending society and making it more democratic. A united political movement that would run for governments and parliaments could try to make reforms in society. We also need to reinvent and redesign the basic structures of the internet. However, we should not do away with social media because they do enable people to maintain their networks. But people do not like the aspects of control embedded in them. We need an internet controlled by civil society. If we think of how the media can be organized there are not just capitalist media but also public service media controlled by the state and alternative media controlled by civil society. The idea of an alternative internet purely controlled by the state might be dangerous, but we need state power to make progressive changes. I would like to see a combination of both state and civil society power in reforming the Internet and the media because there are interesting civil society projects that however face the problem of a lack of resources. For example, the Occupy movement had an alternative social medium they created. This was used by a certain minority within the movement.
My study “OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism” shows that the corporate platforms were also popular among activists but that they were at the same time afraid they were monitored by the state and also worried that as digital workers they were exploited by Internet companies. We can only introduce changes by using already existing structures but the history of alternative media is unfortunately a history of voluntary, self-exploited and precarious work because of the lack of sources of income. So a media reform movement should also channel resources towards alternative projects. We need to tax media corporations more, we need to tax advertising, and corporations in general. Through participatory budgeting one could channel this money towards alternative media projects that are non-profit and so we could create a form of cooperation between the state and civil society that advances media reform. Voluntary donations such as the ones on Wikipedia are also a solution but are dependent on an unstable stream of resources.

7) How do you see the increasing push towards applied and policy oriented research in Europe? How will it affect media studies and social sciences and humanities in general?

Research topics and areas in the European Union are predominantly formed in a top-down process, for example in Horizon 2020. What we need is a more critical agenda that addresses the problems in society and then thinks about the media and communication to see in which context they are operating and how we can improve democracy and the internet. The EU is framing questions about the Internet in terms of e.g. electronic participation but what it means by this is digital bureaucracy and that governments develop services for citizens and not the citizens’ development of an online public sphere. Administrative, quantitative and micro-level research is also preferred while theory, ethics, or critical theory is avoided. A critical research agenda would involve critical social theory on the one hand and critical empirical research on the other hand. Unfortunately a lot of critical theory does not use research methods. At the same time there are a lot of micro studies of social life that completely ignore theory. So a lot of empiricists do not know much about theory and a lot of theorists do not know much about research methods. The key is that we always need to have a societal context in mind so that we do not loose ourselves in studying micro phenomena.

8.) Media studies are an inherently interdisciplinary field. Where do you see the role of disciplines, especially sociology, in media studies?

Philosophy is a general meta-science, while sociology is social sciences´ meta-science. Social science was on the one hand influenced by the natural sciences, which was reflected in the interest in research methods, and on the other hand by the humanities and philosophy which was reflected in the focus on social theory. Social theory is a condusing English term that can sometimes be too micro-focused. There is a difference between “social” and “societal”. I would prefer the terms theory of society as in the German term Gesellschaftstheorie. In any case, media and communication studies should always be informed by sociology. For example, there is a difference between research presented in associations such as ECREA and research presented in the European Sociological Association (ESA). ESA’s Research Network 18 (Sociology of Communications and Media Research) is more interested in critically theorizing the media within society and in the context of society that shapes the media. Media sociology has always been a more critical field than media and communication studies at a whole. I am also optimistic about the development of a critical sociology of the media because there are a lot of young scholars who are interested in studying the media within society and there are a lot of interesting things happening. We need to help in institutionalizing critical media research by running journals, organizing conferences and creating space and time for critical media sociology. The task are: creating space where critical people can meet and talk to each other, creating space where they can publish; and creating time for doing critical research together with colleagues.

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Do you love the new iPhone 5s/5c? Its production is not a labour of love… Why it is time for alternatives to Apple and the iPhone.

Do you love the new iPhone 5s/5c?
Its production is not a labour of love…
Why it is time for alternatives to Apple and the iPhone.

By Christian Fuchs

Apple sold 9 million iPhones 5s and 5c in the days after the release. The tech giant’s share price increased by almost 10% from around US$450 on September 16th to US$490 on September 24th. With sales of US$164.7 billion, profits of US$41.7 billion and capital assets of US$196.1 billion in 2012, Apple is the world’s 15th largest global company and this position may further increase in the near future.

Apple markets the iPhone 5c/s as being “for the colourful” and an expression of “forward thinking”. These ad slogans hail the members of the urban middle class who have knowledge jobs, define themselves as modern and tech-savvy and have a mobile lifestyle. More than 1 million people commute in and out of London every day. With an iPhone or a similar device, public spaces such as the train, the tube, the bus, parks and cafés become liquid offices, work places and global communication interchanges.

But there is a dark side of the iPhone. 30% of the world’s tin is extracted in Bangka and Belitung, where children and other workers toil under slave-like conditions. Yet Apple has not answered to the question if the iPhone 5 contains blood and sweat-tin.

A digital medium such as the iPhone contains raw materials out of which components are manufactured that are then assembled. Apple has been strongly criticized for letting its devices assemble under 19th century-like working conditions in Foxconn factories, where 17 young workers attempted to commit suicide in 2010. 13 of them died. Has the situation at Foxconn changed in 2013? Whereas Apple’s 2012 Supplier Responsibility Report argues based on rather questionable and non-transparent definitions and empirical methods that the suppliers handle the majority of labour issues well, it also says that only 38% of the suppliers respect working hours standards. The 2013 Report says, “we achieved an average of 92 percent compliance with a maximum 60-hour work week”. Apple’s standards of working times specify, “Apple’s Code sets a maximum of 60 work hours per week and requires at least one day of rest per seven days of work, while allowing exceptions in unusual or emergency circumstances“.

The International Labor Organization’s Forty-Hour Week Convention (1935) suggests limiting the weekly work time to 40 hours. This convention has not been ratified in China, but is considered a reasonable standard by labour experts. China has a standard working time system of 44 hours, but grants exceptions. Whereas 35-40 hours work a week are generally considered a normal standard in the West, Apple does not seem to have a problem accepting when employees of its suppliers work at least 50% more than this standard and the racial connotations that such a practice has. The fact that Apple defines itself what appropriate working conditions are and based on this assumption itself measures reality against these standards shows the problem of CSR reporting, namely that it is mainly voluntary and not conducted by well-resourced independent agencies that have coercive measures at hand in order to punish corporate offenders and enforce standards. The Fair Labor Association (FLA) conducted an empirical study for Apple that showed that 64.3% of the respondents think that their salaries do not cover their basic needs. Critics questioned the FLA’s independence. A 2013 report by Students & Scholars against Corporate Misbehaviour (SACOM) points out that 80% of the 130 respondents in Chinese firms that supply Apple were precarious workers, 70-100 hours working weeks were common and there was a rise of slave-like student interns and military management. The report concludes, “Apple does not care about the systematic violations at its suppliers”. “The average work for the last 18 months has been at the very least 7 days, 5 hours, or 78 1/2- hours a week”. This passage could stem from a report describing working conditions at Foxconn, but in fact is an observation that Karl Marx cited about a British wallpaper factory in 1867.

In the 2013 Report, Apple also argues that it terminates its business with companies that engage in child labour or debt bondage slavery. The company does not see any irresponsibility in its own practices, but rather blames “them” – corrupt Chinese companies and labour agencies. Returning children to their parents does not solve the problem of poverty that results in child labour and makes parents willing to send their children to work in factories. If the children are returned, then the family will have less money than before, so its material conditions are likely to worsen. Apple also does not problematize that its operations in China aim at cost-cutting in order to increase profits.

It is a basic problem of fair trade products that they often cannot compete with the price levels set by large global corporations. Fair trade thereby becomes an issue of class and affordability – a mechanism for the middle class’ achievement of conscientiousness because it other than the precariat can afford buying a quiet conscience. The FairPhone will cost 325 Euros and therefore is a price alternative to the iPhone 5c/s that costs in any of its versions more than £469. Although the minerals of the FairPhone are conflict-free, the working conditions, hours and wages in the Chinese manufacturing company A’Hong that assembles the FairPhone have thus far remained unclear, which shows alternative projects’ structural problems within capitalism. FairPhone is a for-profit social enterprise. Even if enterprises try to do good, under a for-profit imperative and logic they are facing strong pressures to find ways for reducing production costs in order to maximize profits.

A Foxconn worker says, “Though we produce for iPhone, I haven’ t got a chance to use iPhone. I believe it is fascinating and has lots of function. However, I don’t think I can own one by myself”. The production of digital media is embedded into global inequalities that show the need to base the entire production of such tools on non-profit logic and to put all involved organizations under workers’ self-management.

It is time that we give up the ideas of corporate profit, for-profit social enterprises and corporate social responsibility in the context of digital media and replace them by the logics of non-profit, the commons and self-management.

Christian Fuchs is Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster’s Centre for Social Media Research. He is author of the forthcoming books “Digital Labour and Karl Marx” (Routledge 2014), “Social Media: A Critical Introduction” (Sage 2014) and “OccupyMedia! The Occupy Movement and Social Media in Crisis Capitalism” (Zero Books 2014).

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Tag clouds of the ICA and IAMCR 2013 conference programmes

Tag clouds of the ICA and IAMCR 2013 conference programmes

Created  by Christian Fuchs @fuchschristian with Wordle,

The ICA 2013 programme as tag cloud:

The IAMCR 2013 programme as tag cloud:

The ICA 2013 abstracts as tag cloud:

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PRISM and the Social Media-Surveillance-Industrial Complex

PRISM and the Social Media-Surveillance-Industrial Complex
Christian Fuchs

There are some things we already know about the USA’s PRISM surveillance programme:

  • According to the leaked documents, the NSA in the PRISM programme obtained direct access to user data from seven online/ICT companies: Aol, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Paltalk, Skype, Yahoo. The Powerpoint slides that Edward Snowden leaked talk about collection “directly from the servers of these U.S. Service Providers”.
  • The NSA’s Director James Clapper confirmed the existence of PRISM and defended its existence.
  • Edward Snowden says that at the NSA “communications are collected and viewed on a daily basis”, including “the content of your communications”.
  • In March 2013, the NSA collected 3 billion pieces of data in the USA alone.
  • A court order ruled that Verizone has to provide to the NSA information on national and international phone calls on a daily basis.

Yet the details of the electronic surveillance operations are unknown. Those involved have continuously denied and downplayed these operations: Google’s CEO Larry Page said that the NSA has no direct access to Google’s servers. Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Apple, Microsoft and Yahoo made the same claim. AOL denied having any knowledge of the existence of PRISM. Whom should one believe? Claims of Internet companies stand against leaked documents, in which the NSA says it has direct access to user data, and whistleblower Edward Snowden saying that he was in the position to directly spy on every person whose e-mail address he had.

We should remember that Google in 2010 admitted in the Street View surveillance scandal that it had lied about the actual extent of surveillance. It wrote: “we discovered that a statement made in a blog post on April 27 was incorrect. In that blog post, and in a technical note sent to data protection authorities the same day, we said that while Google did collect publicly broadcast SSID information (the WiFi network name) and MAC addresses (the unique number given to a device like a WiFi router) using Street View cars, we did not collect payload data (information sent over the network). But it’s now clear that we have been mistakenly collecting samples of payload data from open (i.e. non-password-protected) WiFi networks, even though we never used that data in any Google products”. Internet corporations earn money from personal data and as the Google example shows, they are not always keen on revealing the actual extent of surveillance. I therefore do not at all trust what private companies that collaborated with the NSA in spying on citizens say about their knowledge of PRISM. It is rather more feasible to assume that it is correct what the leaked documents and Snowden say, namely that the NSA has direct access to personal user data that large online corporations store.

Microsoft says that in the second half of 2012, it provided the US government access to “between 31,000 and 32,000 consumer accounts […] This only impacts a tiny fraction of Microsoft’s global customer base”. Facebook writes that in the same period it released data for around 19 000 accounts: “With more than 1.1 billion monthly active users worldwide, this means that a tiny fraction of one percent of our user accounts were the subject of any kind of U.S. state, local, or federal U.S. government request (including criminal and national security-related requests) in the past six months”. Apple argues that between December 2012 and May 2013 it released data from around 10 000 accounts to US government institutions. It is interesting that both Microsoft and Facebook use the same terminology (“a tiny fraction”) for downplaying the extent of surveillance. But is it really just a “tiny” form of surveillance?

In the GDR, the Ministry of State Security’s Department 26: Telephone Control, Wiretapping and Video Surveillance (Ministerium für Staatssicherheit: Abteilung 26. Telefonkontrolle, Abhörmaßnahmen und Videoüberwachung) was responsible for the electronic surveillance of citizens (Schmole 2009). One can say that it was the GDR’s equivalent of the NSA’s divisions that conduct electronic surveillance with the help of PRISM and other programmes. We know from statistics that the Stasi’s Department 26 in 1985 monitored 7941 telephone accounts (Schmole 2009, table IV) and 34 telex lines (Schmole 2009, table VIII) in the GDR (excluding East Berlin). The GDR’s telecommunications consisted of around 1.5 million telephone mainlines and 15 000 telex lines in the mid-1980s. The GDR had around 16.5 million inhabitants in the 1980s, of which around 1.3 million (8%) lived in East-Berlin. Given that the available statistics exclude East-Berlin, we can approximate that 90% of the 1.5 million telephone- and 15 000 telex-mainlines were located outside of East-Berlin, which makes 1.35 million telephone lines and 13 500 telex lines. According to the available statistics, 7941 telephone lines and 34 telex lines were monitored in 1985 in the GDR, excluding East-Berlin, which means on average 3970 telephone lines and 17 telex lines during a 6-month period. A calculation shows that we can approximate that in the GDR during a 6-month period in 1985, the Stasi’s Department 26 monitored 0.3% of all telephone lines and 0.1% of all telex lines.

According to Facebook’s statistics, it released data of 0.002% of its accounts to the NSA during a 6-months period in 2012. Apple had in 2012 around 500 million registered iTunes users, which is a good approximation of the overall number of its customers. Given that it says that during a 6-month period it recently released data of 10 000 customers to US government institutions, the share of monitored accounts is 0.002%. Microsoft’s communication platform Outlook had 400 million users in 2013. If we assume that the 32 000 surveillance operations conducted during a 6-month in 2012 relate to this user base, then the surveillance share is 0.008%. If we assume that the ICT companies underplay the extent of surveillance and that the actual surveillance is a manifold of what they say it is, then it is reasonable to assume that the actual extent of electronic surveillance conducted by US government institutions together with private ICT companies is not massively lower than the one conducted in the GDR that is generally considered to have taken place at a large scale. One can therefore under no circumstances say that the conducted electronic surveillance was “tiny”. We in fact do not know how large it exactly was, but there are indications that the NSA can get direct access to all data of all users of the seven ICT companies mentioned in the leaked documents. PRISM is not, as Facebook, Apple and Microsoft want to make us believe, a small surveillance operation, but rather a massive and large-scale global surveillance project. Given that in 3 cases in absolute terms around 60 000 accounts were monitored during a 6-month period, it is likely that the total number for all 7 companies is around 150 000 user accounts. Compared to electronic surveillance in the GDR, the absolute scope is manifold.

The concept of the military-industrial complex stresses the existence of collaborations between private corporations and the state’s institutions of internal and external defence in the security realm. C. Wright Mills argued in 1956 that there is a power elite that connects economic, political and military power: “There is no longer, on the one hand, an economy, and, on the other hand, a political order containing a military establishment unimportant to politics and to money-making. There is a political economy linked, in a thousand ways, with military institutions and decisions. […] there is an ever-increasing interlocking of economic, militart, and political structures” (pp. 7f).

PRISM shows that the military-industrial complex contains a surveillance-industrial complex, into which social media are entangled: Facebook and Google both have more than 1 billion users and are probably the largest holders of personal data in the world. They and other private social media companies are first and foremost advertising companies that appropriate and commodify data on users’ interests, communications, locations, online behaviour and social networks. They make profit out of data that users’ online activities generate. They constantly monitor usage behaviour for this economic purpose. Since 9/11 there has been intensification and extension of surveillance that is based on the naïve technological-deterministic surveillance ideology that monitoring technologies, big data analysis and predictive algorithms can prevent terrorism. The reality of Woolwich shows that terrorists can use low-tech tools such as machetes for targeted killings. High-tech surveillance will never be able to stop terrorism because most terrorists are smart enough not to announce their intentions on the Internet. It is precisely this surveillance ideology that has created intelligence agency’s interest in the big data held by social media corporations. Recent evidence has shown that social media surveillance not just targets terrorists, but has also been directed at protestors and civil society activists. State institutions and private corporations have long collaborated in intelligence, but the access to social media has taken the surveillance-industrial complex to a new dimension: it is now possible to obtain detailed access to a multitude of citizens’ activities in converging social roles conducted in converging social spaces.

Yet the profits made by social media corporations are not the only economic dimension of the contemporary surveillance-industrial complex: The NSA has subcontracted and outsourced surveillance tasks to around 2000 private security companies that make profits by spying on citizens. Booz Allen Hamilton, the private security company that Edward Snowden worked for until recently, is just one of these firms that follow the strategy of accumulation-by-surveillance. According to financial data, it had 24 500 employees in 2012 and its profits increased from US$ 25 million in 2010 to 84 million in 2011, 239 million in 2012 and 219 million in 2013. Surveillance is big business, both for online companies and those conducting the online spying for intelligence agencies.

The social media surveillance-industrial complex shows that a negative dialectic of the enlightenment is at play in contemporary society: the military-industrial complex constantly undermines the very liberal values of the enlightenment, such as the freedoms of thought, speech, press and assembly as well as the security of the people’s persons, houses, papers and effects. PRISM shows how in supposedly liberal democracies totalitarian forms of political-economic power negate enlightenment values.


Mills, C. Wright. 1956. The power elite. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schmole, Angela. 2009. Abteilung 26. Telefonkontrolle, Abhörmaßnahmen und Videoüberwachung (MfS-Handbuch). Berlin: BStU. http://www.nbn-resolving.org/urn:nbn:de:0292-97839421301962

Christian Fuchs is Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster’s Communication and Media Research Institute and the Centre for Social Media Research.

Image sources:

By NSA, US federal Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By US National Security Agency (Washington Post) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By NSA, US Federal Government [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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CfP: Philosophers of the World Unite! Theorizing Digital Labour and Virtual Work: Definitions, Forms and Transformations

Call for Papers: Philosophers of the World Unite! Theorizing Digital Labour and Virtual Work: Definitions, Forms and Transformations
Special issue of tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique

Supported by:
COST Action IS1202 “Dynamics of Virtual Work”-Working Group 3 (http://dynamicsofvirtualwork.com, http://dynamicsofvirtualwork.com/wg3/),
tripleC (http://www.triple-c.at): Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society.

Editors: Marisol Sandoval, Christian Fuchs, Jernej A. Prodnik, Sebastian Sevignani, Thomas Allmer

In 1845, Karl Marx (1845, 571) formulated in the 11th Feuerbach Thesis: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”. Today, interpretation of the world has become an important form of labour that is expressed on and with the help of digital media. It has therefore become common to talk about digital labour and virtual work. Yet the changes that digital, social and mobile media bring about in the world of labour and work have thus far only been little theorized and theoretically interpreted. In order to change the information society to the better, we first have to interpret digital labour with the help of critical theories. Theorists of the world from different fields, backgrounds, interdisciplines, transdisciplines and disciplines have to unite for this collective philosophical task.

The overall task of this special issue of tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique is to gather contributions that help to an understanding of how to critically theorize digital labour, virtual work and related concepts. Theorizing digital labour requires us to provide grounded 1) definitions of digital labour and virtual work, 2) systematic distinctions and typologies of forms of digital labour and 3) theorizing the transformations that digital labour is undergoing.

All submitted papers should be theoretical and profoundly engage with the meanings of various concepts. Rather than presenting case studies, papers should focus on fundamental theoretical concepts and discuss definitions. They can also explore the relations between concepts, the historical development of these concepts, typologies and the relevance of different theoretical approaches. The special issue is interested in theorizing the broader picture of digital labour.

We welcome submissions that cover one or more of the following or related questions.

1) Concepts of Labour

* How should concepts such of work and labour be defined and what are the implications of these definitions for understanding digital labour and virtual work?

* Which theoretical or philosophical definitions of work and labour exist and which of them are meaningful for understanding virtual work and digital labour?

* What is the difference between labour and digital labour? What is part of digital labour and what is not? Which online, offline, knowledge, physical, industrial, agricultural etc forms of work are part of it or not part of it? Is digital labour only knowledge labour that happens online or do we have to extend the concept to the offline realms and physical labour? Where is the demarcation line? Is digital labour also labour where digital technologies are of vast importance or not? Does digital labour involve the physical forms of work necessary for producing digital labour?

* Is there a difference between ‘work’ and ‘labour’ and if so, how does it matter for the discussion of digital labour and virtual work?

* What is the role of Karl Marx’ theory of labour and surplus value for understanding digital labour and virtual work?

* Is the traditional distinction between the material base and superstructure in the realm of social media and digital labour still valid or does it become blurred or undermined? Are new information and communication technologies and social media, their production and use (n)either part of the base (n)or the superstructure or are they part of both?

* If in the agricultural and industrial age land and nature have been the traditional objects of labour, how do the objects of labour and productive forces look like in the world of digital media and digital labour and how are these productive forces linked to class relations?

* What is meant by concepts such as digital labour, telework, virtual work, cyberwork, immaterial labour, knowledge labour, creative work, cultural labour, communicative labour, informational work, digital craft, service work, prosumption, consumption work, online work, audience labour, playbour (play labour) in the context of digital media? How should they be defined? How are they related? How have they developed historically? How are these concepts related to the wider social context and the existing capitalist order? How can a systematic typology of the existing literature in this research field be constructed? Should any of these concepts be rejected? Why? Why not? Do any of these concepts especially matter? If so, why?

* What is the etymological history of concepts such as work and labour in different languages and how have these concepts changed throughout history? Which of these historically different meanings are important for understanding digital labour and virtual work?

* What are historically new aspects of digital labour, what are predecessors of digital work and which aspects of digital labour have parallels to the pre-digital era?

* What is the role of the concept of value for understanding digital labour and virtual work as well as “immaterial” labour, affective labour, knowledge/communicative/information work etc in the context of digital media?

2) Forms of Labour

* What is the role of agricultural, industrial, service and knowledge work in the world of digital labour and how are they related? How are different modes of production related to each other in the world of digital labour?

* What are the important dimensions for constructing a typology of work that takes place in online spaces (e.g. crowdsourcing, online gambling, gold farming, turking, microwork, production of and trade with virtual items, clickwork etc)?

* How can a typology of alternative forms of online work that rejects the profit logic be constructed (e.g. free software development, creative commons and copyleft publishing, Wikipedia collaboration, peer-production, open access publishing, file sharing etc)?

* Which forms of labour are involved in the global value chain of digital media, how do they differ from each other and how are they related (e.g. mining, hardware assemblage, call centre work, software engineering, transport labour, prosumer labour, e-waste labour etc)?

3) Transformations of Labour

* How can blurring boundaries between toil and play, labour and leisure time, the factory and society, production and consumption, public and private, the sphere of production and reproduction, economic value and social wealth in the realm of digital media be conceptualized?

* What is the relationship between creativity, participation, do-it-yourself culture on the one hand and exploitation, alienation and/or emancipation on the other hand?

* What is the role of the concepts of the working class and the proletariat for theorizing digital labour?
* How would the concepts of digital work and digital labour look like in a post-capitalist society? Does the post-capitalist end of the working class also mean the end of and abolition of digital work? Or just the end of digital labour? What are the anthropologically constant and the historically variable dimensions of productive human activities? How should they be conceptualized and named? How are they related to the realm of digital media? Do concepts such as anti-work, zerowork, the abolition of work, post-work and the right to be lazy take the anthropological, creative and productive aspects of human life that are expressed on digital media into account? What are the elements of digital media activities that will continue to exist in a post-capitalist society? What are the historically continuous and discontinuous elements of digital labour?

* What has historically been the role of communications – including digital communications – in labour transformations and in the construction of global labour chains (e.g. global division of labour and social interdependencies; the concept of collective worker / Gesamtarbeiter; socialization of labour etc.)?


Abstract submission: July 31, 2013
All abstracts will be reviewed and decisions on acceptance/rejection will be communicated to the authors at the latest by the end of summer 2013.

Full paper submission: January 15, 2014

Please submit article titles, author names and contact data and abstracts of 200-400 words to:
Marisol Sandoval, marisol.sandoval@uti.at

Marx, Karl. 1845. Theses on Feuerbach. In The German ideology, including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the critique of political economy, 569-571. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

About the Editors

Marisol Sandoval is Lecturer in Culture, Policy & Management at City University London.

Christian Fuchs is Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster and editor of tripleC.

Jernej Amon Prodnik is PhD candidate at the University of Ljubljana’s Faculty of Social Sciences.

Sebastian Sevignani is PhD candidate at the University of Salzburg’s Faculty of Cultural & Social Sciences and a research associate in the Unified Theory of Information Research Group (UTI). Website: http://sevignani.uti.at

Thomas Allmer is PhD candidate at the University of Salzburg and member of the Unified Theory of Information Research Group. Website: http://allmer.uti.at

About the Journal: tripleC

Editor: Christian Fuchs, University of Westminster

tripleC (http://www.triple-c.at): Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society focuses on information society studies and studies of media, digital media, information and communication in society with a special interest in critical studies in these thematic areas.
The journal has a special interest in disseminating articles that focus on the role of information (cognition/knowledge, communication, cooperation) in contemporary capitalist societies. For this task, articles should employ critical theories and/or empirical research inspired by critical theories and/or philosophy and ethics guided by critical thinking as well as relate the analysis to power structures and inequalities of capitalism, especially forms of stratification such as class, racist and other ideologies and capitalist patriarchy.
tripleC is a transdisciplinary journal that is open to contributions from all disciplines and approaches that critically and with a focus on power structures analyze the role of cognition, communication, cooperation, information, media, digital media and communication in the information society.
tripleC is indexed in the databases Communication and Mass Media Complete and Scopus. Its application for inclusion in Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) is under review/observation by ISI Thomson.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

By Steve Jurvetson from Menlo Park, USA (glue works  Uploaded by Zolo) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Enrique Dans (flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By McLeod (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC-BY-SA-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5-2.0-1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Dbrabham (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By Thousandways at de.wikipedia (Original text : Matthias Feilhauer (Benutzer: thousandways)) [CC-BY-SA-2.0-de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/de/deed.en)], from Wikimedia Commons

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Christian Fuchs and Sebastian Sevignani: New article about theorizing digital labour on social media

Fuchs, Christian and Sebastian Sevignani. 2013. What Is digital labour? What Is digital work? What’s their difference? And why do these questions matter for understanding social media? tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society 11 (2): 237-293. http://www.triple-c.at/index.php/tripleC/article/view/461


This paper deals with the questions: What is digital labour? What is digital work? Based on Marx’s theory, we distinguish between work and labour as anthropological and historical forms of human activity. The notion of alienated labour is grounded in a general model of the work process that is conceptualized based on a dialectic of subject and object in the economy that we present in the form of a model, the Hegelian-Marxist dialectical triangle of the work process. Various aspects of a Marxist theory of work and labour, such as the notions of abstract and concrete labour, double-free labour, productive labour, the collective worker and general work are presented. Labour is based on a fourfold alienation of the human being. After these concepts are introduced, they are used for discussing the notions of digital labour and digital work. The presentation is on the one hand general and on the other hand uses Facebook as a concrete case for explaining how digital labour functions. Digital work is the organisation of human experiences with the help of the human brain, digital media and speech in such a way that new products are created. Digital labour is the valorisation dimension of digital work. We conclude that we require the transformation of digital labour into digital work, a true social media revolution that makes “social media” truly and fully social. We also argue why in our view work is not the same as labour by discussing the concept of playful work and pointing out limits of concepts such as antiwork, postwork and zerowork.


Digital Labour, Facebook, Social Media, Karl Marx, Political Economy of the Media and Communication

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Avoiding Avoidance: How to Put an End to Google’s Circumvention of Corporation Tax

Avoiding Avoidance: How to Put an End to Google’s Circumvention of Corporation Tax
Christian Fuchs

In the UK Public Accounts Committee’s recent session on tax avoidance, Chair Margaret Hodge spoke of Google’s “devious” behaviour and that the search engine in contrast to its philosophy does evil because it uses “smoke and mirrors to avoid paying tax”.

Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt argues that companies’ reinvestments tend “to lead to job creation, further economic growth and, ultimately, more tax” and that “people we [Google] employ in Britain are certainly paying British taxes”. Schmidt makes typical neoliberal arguments: companies create growth and employment and should therefore not be taxed. Google should not pay taxes because its employees do. Google in 2011 made a UK turnover of  £395 million, but only paid £6 million in UK corporation tax.

Image: Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt who is proud that “Google is a capitalist country”

Schmidt’s Freudian slip “Google is a capitalist country… er, company” tells much about how he seems to think about his company: He is proud to be a capitalist in times where people are getting evicted because of social security cuts that are implemented as part of austerity measures for reducing the budget. Whereas employees are paying more and more taxes and are getting less and less out of it from what was formerly known in some countries as the welfare state, there has been a long tendency that large corporations pay no or almost no corporation tax. The consequence is a rise of inequality: companies become economically as powerful as many countries, whereas more and more everyday people struggle to survive. Google’s worldwide revenues were more than US$46 billion in 2012. These revenues are larger than the 2011 Gross National Product of more than 100 countries, including Tunisia (US$42 billion), Lithuania (US$39 billion), Albania (US$12 billion), Armenia (US$10 billion), Mali (US$9 billion), Nicaragua (US$8 billion) or Rwanda (US$6 billion). Schmidt’s pride in being a capitalist means nothing else than being proud of capitalism’s global inequality. The global mobility of capital has allowed large multinational companies to put pressure on nation states to lower corporate taxation as well as welfare and employment standards. It has also supported the transformation of nation states into competition states that compete for capital investments by advancing neoliberal policies that deregulate employment regulations and dismantle the welfare state.

Google’s Vice-President for Sales and Operations in Northern and Central Europe Matt Brittin argued in contrast to Margaret Hodge in the Public Account Committee’s inquiry that the search engine’s British employees do not execute transactions or trade. The sale would rather be concluded via an online auction algorithm. He also argued that the rights for Google’s platform are owned by Google Ireland and that the UK employees therefore “can’t sell what they don’t own” and that the “trade is executed with Ireland where the intellectual property is owned”. In the November session of the Committee, Brittin said that Google’s 17 000 engineers in the USA “create the economic value for Google”, that one needs to “pay tax where the economic value is created” and in contrast to last week’s session that Google Bermuda “holds the rights to our intellectual property” and that it therefore is liable for paying taxes there.

Google draws from these arguments the conclusion that it is not legally obliged to pay corporation tax in the UK. The Income and Corporation Taxes Act 1988 specifies that a company not resident in the UK must pay corporation tax if it “carries on a trade in the United Kingdom through a branch or agency”, which means obtaining “income arising directly or indirectly through or from the branch or agency, and any income from property or rights used by, or held by or for, the branch or agency” (§11). Location is a central issue in this definition that brings up the legal question what it means to operate an online business in the UK.

For setting up a targeted ad on Google, a customer first selects if the ad shall be run on Google and/or partner sites and in which countries the ad shall be presented. S/he also specifies the maximum bid in the advertising space auction and the maximum amount to be spent per day. In the next step one designs the ad and identifies associated search keywords.

If a user conducts a search, the Google AdWords’ algorithm determines which ads are associated with the entered keyword(s) and conducts an automated algorithmic auction between these ads in order to determine their screen positions. The auction price is set as the amount the customer has to pay when a user clicks on its ad. This means that in the pay-per-click mode, a payment is executed if a user who has searched for a specific keyword clicks on an ad that is targeted to him/her and associated with her/his entered keyword. Let’s assume there is an ad client who resides in the UK. And the ads are targeted at users in both the UK and Ireland.

A company not resident in the UK is liable to pay corporation tax in the UK if “it carries on a trade in the United Kingdom through a branch or agency”. The decisive legal question is therefore what it means to carry on a trade in the UK. A trade is an exchange of two goods or services in a specific quantitative relationship. In monetary economies commodity sales are mediated with the help of money, i.e. commodities are exchanged with money in specific quantitative relationships.

Google’s argument that the platform and algorithm is owned in Bermuda and that the sale of its UK advertisements therefore takes place there is mistaken because the search engine and the auction algorithm are not sold, i.e. they are no commodities. A specificity of a commodity is that you can only get access to it if you pay for it. The search engine can be used by anybody without payment. It is no commodity. Whenever I type keywords into Google, I not only see results, but also advertisements. I never click on these advertisements, so Google does not earn any money from me and Google’s clients who present these ads to me do not pay any money to Google for the presentation of these ads. The presentation of advertisements itself is not a commodity.

If I click on an advertisement, I am transferred to one of Google’s ad clients’ specific websites and give my attention to it. The ad client hopes that I buy a product there or conduct specific activities. This means that the actual commodity trade takes place the moment I click on the targeted ad. Neither the search engine nor the auction algorithm is sold or rented, but Google rather sells my attention to the client’s website as well as data about my location and interests. My search activity generates the data and my click activity and online behaviour the attention that I give to the client’s website. This means that without user activities there is no commodity that Google can sell. Users create large parts of Google’s value and profits by their searching, clicking and online behaviour. The sale of the users’ attention as commodity is executed by the users’ clicks.

Given that a user is located in the UK, which is determined and defined in the online realm by the IP address of the computer one uses, the trade between Google and its advertising client on whose ad the user clicks is executed in the United Kingdom. Google in this case carries on a trade in Britain because it trades the transaction data (my location, keywords, etc) and user attention that are generated by a user who is located in the UK. Users are located in specific countries at specific points of time. It is therefore feasible to use the location of the user who clicks on an advertisement as factor determining in which country Google achieves its profits. Google users are unpaid Google workers who create large parts of Google’s value and profits. More and more online businesses create value by relying on users’ distributed value-creating activities.

The Internet is a globally distributed technological space of information, communication and collaboration that naturally extends beyond national boundaries. Online interactions and business operations therefore tend to stretch across time zones and countries. Internet service providers, companies storing applications, users who are active by using such applications and businesses investing online are often located in different countries. Taxation operates mainly on a national basis, which creates an ambiguity between the global network and nation states that is expressed in the question, where Google and other companies should pay taxes. Internet users are not consumers or audiences, they are active creators, productive consumers (prosumers) and consumption workers, who create content, social relations, transaction data and attention. The specific nature of the Internet requires us to take users’ important role into account when determining in which country a trade takes place and where an online company such as Google should be taxed.

The conclusion from the point I have tried to make is that it is feasible to assume that Google should pay taxes in the UK for all profits it generates with the help of clicks conducted on computers that are physically located in the United Kingdom. Determining where Google would have to pay taxes on specific shares of its annual profits could either be accomplished by an exact breakdown of ad clicks per country or by dividing the overall profits by the average annual share of Google’s users in specific locations. Taking this criterion serious could help putting an end to online corporations’ tax avoidance strategies.

Christian Fuchs is Professor of Social Media at the University of Westminster’s Centre for Social Media Research. Twitter: @fuchschristian

Image sources:
Eric Schmidt. By Charles Haynes (Charles Haynes’ flickr account) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Googleplex Welcome Sign. By Coolcaesar (Googleplexwelcomesign.jpg) [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.

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Open Access Journals and Capitalism: An Interview with Christian Fuchs

Open Access Journals and Capitalism: An Interview with Christian Fuchs
By Simon Schöpf and Dimitris Masvoulas

Simon Schöpf (simon.schoepf@gmail.com) and Dimitris Masvoulas (jmasvoulas@hotmail.com) are graduate students in the MA programme Digital Media & Society at Uppsala University in Sweden.

Simon and Dimitris:
Publishing articles online requires server space and labour power. Since your journal tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique does not charge readers nor authors, how exactly are those costs covered?
tripleC has since 2003 when it was founded been a no-budget and no-profit journal operated by volunary work time donations of the editorial team. We do not charge authors or readers, which is a big difference to other models and makes the publishing process fair and democratic. There is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which means that articles can be reproduced when naming the source and author, they can be reused for non-commercial purposes without editing. I consider tripleC together with other similar journals an important innovation in the field of publishing in Media and Communication Studies.

Simon and Dimitris:
Seen as an alternative media organization, is there a hierarchy leadership required by a few individuals? What about the challenge of motivating employees to work for an OA journal instead of for a conventional, possibly better-known conventional publisher, recognizing that academics most often get a steady income from their universities and are expected to peer-review for journals as a ‘gift’ to the scientific community?

I am not sure if I fully understand what you mean by employees working… Employees are paid a wage for their activiy, in this sense tripleC has no employees. Everyone who is involved in the project does so because s/he is convinced that it is an important project, that academic knowledge should be no commodity and that we want to challenge the capitalist business of academic publishing, where large publishing houses exploit the free labour of academics, dispossess and commodify the resulting knowledge and tend to make profit rates between 20-60% per year, a value that is hardly achieved in any other industries (see the article by Wilhelm Peekhaus in tripleC’s Marx special issue for a good analysis).

The difference is that big publishers have a big team of hired (and exploited) employees for copyediting, language-correction, layout, technology, etc. tripleC does not have this. We have voluntary editorial assistants who handle the final corrections and upload. Increasingly we have tried to get the authors’ help by asking them to layout the articles and in some cases to look for a proof-reader, which seems to be fair because the resulting articles are available to anyone without payment, which makes a big difference to the corporate publishers as the reach is wider, the publication process is much faster, there are no copyrights, but Creative Commons, and there are practically no word count limits. tripleC encourages in contrast to most other journals (also online journals!) long articles because we are convinced that good theory needs space. Many other journals are neither interested in theory nor in critical theory. Not everything can be expressed in the standard length of 8 000 words, which is a relic of the age of print because paper is rather expensive.

Corporate publishers have large capital, which gives them advantages in the editing process. In 2012, I have myself corrected the language of hundreds of pages in tripleC, if the English is poor this includes rewriting entire sentences. You can imagine that this takes many hours well beyond a 40 hour working week. What I want to say by this is that non-profit alternative media such as non-profit Open Access Journals are in capitalism structurally discriminated because they have no capital and do not want to make monetary profits. This is a contradiction that is immanent in capitalism: alternative media are more democratic, but are often based on working long hours without pay.

Non-profit Open Access Journals are very important for democratizing and decommodifying academic publishing. We need public funding schemes for non-profit Open Access Journals at the EU level. In Sweden, Vetenskapsrådet has introduced a comparable model. Just like we have Research Councils, we need European-wide Open Access Councils that have calls, where editors submit proposal for journal funding that are peer-reviewed and where in the case of a positive result public funding is provided for a specific time period. The stipulation should be that by this money editorial assistants are employed, who take care of language correction, layout, copyediting, promoting the journal in academic communities, etc. It would create an entire new job profile for editorial assistants in the sense that this job could be transformed into a non-profit public service job category. Also university libraries could get a new role and help organizing the publication of Open Access Journals s in their universities.

There are a lot of reforms of academic publishing that are urgently needed.

Simon and Dimitris:
Amongst academics, consensus seems to be found that OA publishing is the future of academic publishing. What is your opinion on that matter and, speculating about time frames, when will OA publishing be ‘state-of-the-art’ (if so)? Do OA articles, by being freely available to the general public possess disruptive potential against the dominant media logic that influences (known as the process of mediatization) society to accept and embed values and norms generated through the dominant media institutions?

I do not want to speculate about anything that lies in the future because this is unscientific.

Open access publishing is discussed a lot, it is a very hot issue in academic politics. And each and every scholar is concerned by it.

The question is not if Open Access will be the future of academic publishing, without a doubt it will be, but which model of Open Access will be the future, as there is not just one, but several ones.
In the so-called green model of OAJ corporate publishers release articles after 6-12 months for OA publishing.
In the gold model, articles are immediately published online and there are author fees. The commodity logic is just transfered from readers to authors, who pay for getting published!

In the diamond model, articles are published open access without the commodity logic. These journals are non-profit, non-commerical and non-commodified and make the articles available based on a non-commercial Creative Commons License or a similar license.

Regular corporate academic publishing a) exploits the free labour of academics, b) commodifies academic knowledge, c) is injust and unfair because those who cannot pay or are not part of a rich university do not get access, d) is racist and imperialist because poor readers and universities in developing countries are excluded from access.
The “gold model” of OAJ results in new capital accumulation models. My experience is that those who run such models tend to undermine peer-review: they tend to publish most articles just for the profit-sake. The author fees are often very high and when you are not rich or not part of a rich unversity or do not have large research projects, then you are excluded from publishing. This model creates a two-class structure in publishing, it is an expression of class divisions in academia. It is also again racist and imperialist because scholars in developing countries tend to be excluded.

The only model that I consider appropriate, democratic, fair and just is the diamond model of Open Access Journals. If you ask me, then this should be the future of academic publishing. The model can also be applied to academic book publishing and there are already a few publishers around focusing on this model. But of course this model that strengthens the academic public sphere and democratic access to knowledge needs a support infrastructure, it is very important to look at political economy here and not to be idealistic: If this model should be the future – which is an at the moment undecided, political and normative question – then diamond model journals need public funding and general funding schemes need to be implemented. This means that public money needs to be dedicated to this task. If this is not then, then academic publishing will remain as undemocratic and closed as it is today. There is a potential for change, we’ll see if it will be realized or not.

Simon and Dimitris:
A few words on influence: In your field, how much of the discourse is shaped by toll-access journals and how much by OA journals?

I do not know, I have not quantified this, but somebody should definitely make an analysis of it.

I did not really remember when tripleC switched to a Creative Commons licence so I looked it up. The basic idea in 2003 when the journal was founded was that it is important to publish academic knowledge as common good without deriving economic profit from it. We saw that the Internet poses good possibilities for going new ways in academic publishing. tripleC adopted the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs licence in 2006, at the start of the journal’s volume 4. It was a natural thing to do because when we heard about the Creative Commons NonCommercial licence we immediately realized that it formalizes the spirit upon which we founded the journal and that guided its publication. This means that the volumes 4-11 have been published with this licence, which is 8 years. I do not know when other media/communications OAJ adopted the CC licence, but maybe tripleC was among the first ones. The International Journal of Communication uses a comparable licence, but was only founded in 2007, so tripleC is  older than this journal and besides being an explicitly critical journal, which IJOC is not (it also publishes critical articles, but also a lot of administrative, uncritical ones), tripleC also adopted the CC license earlier than IJOC. It would be interesting to find out which media/communications journals was the first one to use a non-commercial CC licence, I have not done a systematic analysis.

Simon and Dimitris:
Do you think it is valid to talk about a “mediatization of education”, referring to the form of direct mediatization as discussed by Stig Hjarvard, being the convertion of a formerly non-mediated activity to a mediated form, i.e. the activity is performed through the interaction with a medium – the medium is the Internet?

I think the category of mediatization and the academic discourse that has developed about it in Media and Communication Studies is misleading. All human activity is always mediatized. The mediatization discourse creates the impression that mediatization is something new and an evolutionary process and overlooks that mediatization is a fundamental anthropological constant of any society. The air is a medium of face to face communication just like networked computing is a medium of online information, communication and collaboration. Media imply information and communication and the other way round. It is therfore a mistake to separate Media Studies from Communication Studies. We need an alternative discourse to mediatization theory. This theory is neither helpfull nor critical.

Simon and Dimitris:
Is there a (subjectively-felt) shift towards Open Access publishing amongst academics in your field or do scholars continue to submit their work to conventional publishers? Is there a generational factor motivating the decision?

I think somebody should conduct research about this question.

Simon and Dimitris:
Thank you for the talk.

It was a pleasure talking to you.

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