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Re: <nettime> David Solomonoff on the perils and pitfalls of InternetFre
Goran Maric on Wed, 9 Mar 2011 04:05:39 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> David Solomonoff on the perils and pitfalls of InternetFreedom - "The Internet's Unholy Marriage to Capitalism "

This is a first part of a bit longer but quite an interesting reading
written by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney, "The Internet's
Unholy Marriage to Capitalism."  Unfortunately the history of the Internet,
form its birth up to now, reminds me quite a bit to the the U.S. history of
radio broadcast, i.e., how a democratic nature, intention and purpose of a
medium / media, such as transmition of radio waves through the ether, get
to be totally inverted and degenerated in relation to its originated ideas
and or goals.
The full reading here:
"Robert W. McChesney is the Gutgsell Endowed Professor in the Department of
Communication at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2002 he
was the co-founder of Free Press, a national media reform organization.
McChesney also hosts the Media Matters weekly radio program every Sunday
afternoon on NPR-affiliate WILL-AM radio. McChesney has written or edited
eighteen books. His most recent book, written with John Nichols, is the
multiple award-winning The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media
Revolution that Will Begin the World Again (Nation Books, 2010). His work
has been translated into 27 languages. "

The Internet's Unholy Marriage to Capitalism

John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney

The United States and the world are now a good two decades into the
Internet revolution, or what was once called the information age. The past
generation has seen a blizzard of mind-boggling developments in
communication, ranging from the World Wide Web and broadband, to ubiquitous
cell phones that are quickly becoming high-powered wireless computers in
their own right. Firms such as Google, Amazon, Craigslist, and Facebook
have become iconic. Immersion in the digital world is now or soon to be a
requirement for successful participation in society. The subject for debate
is no longer whether the Internet can be regarded as a technological
development in the same class as television or the telephone. Increasingly,
the debate is turning to whether this is a communication revolution closer
to the advent of the printing press.1 The full impact of the Internet
revolution will only become apparent in the future, as more technological
change is on the horizon that can barely be imagined and hardly
anticipated.2 But enough time has transpired, and institutions and
practices have been developed, that an assessment of the digital era is
possible, as well as a sense of its likely trajectory into the future. 

Our analysis in this article will focus on the United States-not only
because it is the society that we know best, and the Internet's point of
origin, but also because it is there, we believe, that one most clearly
finds the integration of monopoly-finance capital and the Internet,
representing the dominant tendency of the global capitalist system. This is
not meant to suggest that the current U.S. dominance of the Internet is not
open to change, or that other countries may not choose to take other
paths-but only that all alternatives in this realm will have to struggle
against the trajectory now being set by U.S. capitalism, with its immense
global influence and power. 

What is striking, as one returns to the late 1980s and early 1990s and
reads about the Internet and its future, is that these accounts were almost
uniformly optimistic. With all information available to everyone at the
speed of light and impervious to censorship, all existing institutions were
going to be changed for the better. There was going to be a worldwide
two-way flow, or multi-flow, a democratization of communication unthinkable
before then. Corporations could no longer bamboozle consumers and crush
upstart competitors; governments could no longer operate in secrecy with a
kept-press spouting propaganda; students from the poorest and most remote
areas would have access to educational resources once restricted to the
elite. In short, people would have unprecedented tools and power. For the
first time in human history, there would not only be information equality
and uninhibited instant communication access between all people everywhere,
but there would also be access to a treasure trove of uncensored knowledge
that only years earlier would have been unthinkable, even for the world's
most powerful ruler or richest billionaire. Inequality and exploitation
were soon to be dealt their mightiest blow. 

The Internet, or more broadly, the digital revolution is truly changing the
world at multiple levels. But it has also failed to deliver on much of the
promise that was once seen as implicit in its technology. If the Internet
was expected to provide more competitive markets and accountable
businesses, open government, an end to corruption, and decreasing
inequality-or, to put it baldly, increased human happiness-it has been a
disappointment. To put it another way, if the Internet actually improved
the world over the past twenty years as much as its champions once
predicted, we dread to think where the world would be if it had never

We do not argue that the initial sense of the Internet's promise was pure
fantasy, although some of it can be attributed to the utopian enthusiasm
that major new technologies can engender when they first emerge. (One is
reminded of the early-twentieth-century view of the Nobel Prize-winning
chemist and philosopher of energetics, Wilhelm Ostwald, who contended that
the advent of the "flying machine" was a key part of a universal process
that could erase international boundaries associated with nations,
languages, and money, "bringing about the brotherhood of man."3) Instead,
we argue that there was-and remains-extraordinary democratic and
revolutionary promise in this communication revolution. But technologies do
not ride roughshod over history, regardless of their immense powers. They
are developed in a social, political, and economic context. And this has
strongly conditioned the course and shape of the communication revolution. 

This economic context points to the paradox of the Internet as it has
developed in a capitalist society. The Internet has been subjected, to a
significant extent, to the capital accumulation process, which has a clear
logic of its own, inimical to much of the democratic potential of digital
communication, and that will be ever more so, going forward. What seemed to
be an increasingly open public sphere, removed from the world of commodity
exchange, seems to be morphing into a private sphere of increasingly
closed, proprietary, even monopolistic markets. 

Our argument is not a socialist argument against capitalism's
anti-democratic tendencies per se, which we then extend to the case of the
Internet. Although we would not be uncomfortable taking such a position, it
would make something as extraordinary and unique as the digital revolution
too much a dependent variable-and it would allow those opposed to socialism
to dismiss the argument categorically. Instead, we base our argument on
elements of conventional economic thought, produced by scholars who, by and
large, favor capitalism as a system. Our critique, derived from classical
and mainstream terms of analysis, will repeatedly demonstrate the
weaknesses of allowing the profit motive to dictate the development of the

In particular, we argue that applying the "Lauderdale Paradox" (or the
contradiction between public wealth and private riches) of classical
political economy makes a strong case that the most prudent course for any
society is to start from the assumption that the Internet should be
fundamentally outside the domain of capital. We hope to provide a necessary
alternative way to imagine how best to develop the Internet in contrast to
the commodified, privatized world of capital accumulation. This does not
mean that there can be no commerce, even extensive commerce, in the digital
realm, but merely that the system's overriding logic-and the starting point
for all policy discussions-must be as an institution operated on public
interest values, at bare minimum as a public utility. 

It is true that in any capitalist society there is going to be strong, even
at times overwhelming, pressure to open up areas that can be profitably
exploited by capital, regardless of the social costs, or "negative
externalities," as economists put it. After all, capitalists-by definition,
given their economic power-exercise inordinate political power. But it is
not a given that all areas will be subjected to the market. Indeed, many
areas in nature and human existence cannot be so subjected without
destroying the fabric of life itself-and large portions of capitalist
societies have historically been and remain largely outside of the capital
accumulation process. One could think of community, family, religion,
education, romance, elections, research, and national defense as partial
examples, although capital is pressing to colonize those where it can. Many
important political debates in a capitalist society are concerned with
determining the areas where the pursuit of profit will be allowed to rule,
and where it will not. At their most rational, and most humane, capitalist
societies tend to preserve large noncommercial sectors, including areas
such as health care and old-age pensions, that might be highly profitable
if turned over to commercial interests. At the very least, the more
democratic a capitalist society is, the more likely it is for there to be
credible public debates on these matters. 

However-and this is a point dripping in irony-such a fundamental debate
never took place in relation to the Internet. The entire realm of digital
communication was developed through government-subsidized-and-directed
research and during the postwar decades, primarily through the military and
leading research universities. Had the matter been left to the private
sector, to the "free market," the Internet never would have come into
existence. The total amount of the federal subsidy of the Internet is
impossible to determine with precision. 

As Sascha Meinrath, a leading policy expert, puts it: calculating the
amount of the historical federal subsidy of the Internet "depends on how
one parses government spending-it's fairly modest in terms of direct cash
outlays. But once one takes into account rights of way access that were
donated and the whole research agenda (through the Defense Advanced
Research Projects Agency, the National Science Foundation, etc.), it's
pretty substantial. And if you include the costs of the wireless subsidies,
tax breaks (e.g., no sales taxes on online purchases), etc., it's well into
the hundreds of billions range."4 For context, Meinrath's estimate puts the
federal investment in the Internet at least ten times greater than the cost
of the Manhattan Project, allowing for inflation.5 

That is not all. The early Internet was not only noncommercial, it was also
anti-commercial. Prior to the early 1990s, the National Science Foundation
Network, the forerunner to the Internet, explicitly limited the network to
noncommercial uses. If anyone dared to sell something online, that person
would likely be "flamed," meaning that other outraged Internet users would
clog the individual's email inbox with contemptuous messages demanding that
the sales pitch be removed. This internal policing by Internet users was
based on the assumption that commercialism and an honest, democratic public
sphere did not mix. Corporate media were the problem, and the Internet was
the solution. Good Internet citizens needed to be on the level; they should
not hustle for profit by any means necessary. 

The lack of debate about how the Internet should be developed was due, to a
certain extent, to the digital revolution exploding at precisely the moment
that neoliberalism was in ascendance, its flowery rhetoric concerning "free
markets" most redolent. The core spirit was that businesses should always
be permitted to develop any area where profits could be found, and that
this was the most efficient use of resources for an economy. Anything
interfering with capitalist exploitation was bad economics and
ideologically loaded, and was usually advanced by a deadbeat "special
interest" group that could not cut the mustard in the world of free market
competition and so sought protection from the corrupt netherworld of
government regulation and bureaucracy.6 This credo led the drive for
"deregulation" across the economy, and for the privatization of once public
sector activities. 

The rhetoric of free markets was adopted by all sides in the communications
debate in the early 1990s, as the World Wide Web turned the Internet
seemingly overnight into a mass medium. For the business community and
politicians, the Internet was all about unleashing entrepreneurs, slaying
monopolies, promoting innovation, and generating "friction-free
capitalism," as Bill Gates famously put it.7 There was great money to be
made. Even those skeptical toward corporations and commercialism tended to
be unconcerned, if not sanguine, about the capitalist invasion, as the
power of this apparently magical technology could override the efforts of
dinosaur corporations to tame it. There was plenty of room for everybody.
The Internet bubble of the late 1990s certainly encouraged capitalism's
embrace of the Internet, and U.S. news media could barely contain
themselves with their enthusiasm for the happy couple. Capitalism and the
Internet seemed a marriage made in heaven. 
Internet Service Providers A more sober analysis, however, can locate
certain inconsistencies, if not contradictions, in ascribing so called
"free markets" to the Internet, beyond the fact that the Internet's very
existence was a testament to public sector investment. Three areas stood
out early on or have emerged forcefully in subsequent years. ...
To continue reading, please go to:


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