Net Neutrality and a Socialist Internet
The recent decision by the Trump Administration to overturn the Obama-era Net Neutrality rulings has rightly attracted harsh criticism. Much of the media commentary, though, has emphasized the personal repercussions of the repeal; all our personal activity online, including all the deeply embarrassing things that people do on the internet, could now be monitored by the likes of AT&T, Verizon or Comcast.
As bad as this is, though, there is more at stake here than personal or intimate issues. The repeal of Net Neutrality opens up the real possibility that vast amounts of our personal lives and personal data will be not only monitored but also newly monetized. The shiny promises of social media — that new modes of social interaction are opening before us — hides a nastier reality.
Social media companies and smartphone Apps regularly mine their users personal information and a whole slew of previously non-commercial interactions — friendship, dating, moving through cities — are now commercialised and turned into moments for profit-making.
“Data” — including data-extraction, data-mining, data-refinery and data-storage — are rapidly growing sectors of the American economy. The vocabulary used here — all drawn from old-fashioned resource-extraction industries like oil and coal — shows how the goal is to amass as much data as possible and exploit it for profits.
Data-extraction companies, often masquerading under other operations, are becoming ever more adept at this. Uber, valued at $68bn in 2017, compiles extensive personal data about passengers and drivers, as does the latest models of cars produced by Tesla. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home are similarly invasive. The aggressive push to compile data easily slips into creepy territory, as reported recently by The Economist:
“Data-driven” startups are the wildcatters of the new economy: they prospect for digital oil, extract it and turn it into clever new services, from analysing X-rays and CAT scans to determining where to spray herbicide on a field. Nexar, an Israeli startup, has devised a clever way to use drivers as data sources. Its app turns their smartphones into dashcams that tag footage of their travels via actions they normally perform.
The repeal of Net Neutrality, with its admittedly limited provisions for privacy online, opens up even more avenues for data-extraction and data-mining. The repeal seeks to copper-fasten the internet as a capitalist space ruled by the dictates of profit-making.
An emergent strand of left-wing thinkers have looked at the panoply of new digital technologies — from automation technology and self-driving cars to “the internet of things” — and made strong assumptions-cum-predictions about the world without work that all this could bring; Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, Srnicek and Williams’ Inventing the Future and all the online chatter about “Fully Automated Luxury Communism.” There is certainly much cause for hope, but a socialist internet is far from inevitable.
Frederic Jameson once said that capitalism is both the best and worst thing to ever happen to humanity. This is as true of Silicon Valley as it is of any other species of capitalism.
The internet can make massive amounts of human knowledge freely available to the world, can make whole new ways of social interaction possible and can connect previously isolated peoples and communities. But as we spend more and more time online, more and more of our everyday actions are generating data that can commodified, bought and sold. More and more of our lives become dominated by capitalist forces.
Adam Greenfield, one of the most perceptive technology writers on the Left has recently unpacked the potentials and dangers that new digital technologies simultaneously post.
Automation could mean a world without work, but, sooner than we think, it could also mean mass layoffs, long-term unemployment for significant numbers of working people, and all the economic despair that will go along with that.
The staggering amounts of personal data — and even intimate information about our private lives — which so many companies now amass on their customers could easily be weaponized for state surveillance and tracking of anyone with the “wrong” political beliefs. Smartphones (provided you can afford their $400 price tag) mean that we have an information node in our pockets with exponentially greater processing power than the computers brought onboard the Apollo 11 rocket.
But for many, they also mean that we’re never truly not at work, never not available to our bosses’ emails; French workers are now protected by a law establishing their “right to disconnect” and to not respond to emails after 6pm.
What such legislation shows — as indeed is also shown by the admittedly moderate requirements of Net Neutrality — is that it is always possible to halt the exploitative and invasive tendencies of Silicon Valley capitalism.
Not only should Net Neutrality be reinstated but future campaigns should go even further, to realise the possibilities of a socialist internet that serves the interests of the 99% instead of a capitalist internet that exploits our personal data and private lives to serve the interests of Capital.