I love the fact that every time I buy a bottle of Fairy Liquid, I am helping overthrow a dictator somewhere around the world. Proctor & Gamble, the company behind Fairy, is one of the biggest advertisers on Facebook, helping to generate the $10bn a year of advertising revenue that keeps the social networking site alive. Facebook is now one of the primary means by which public uprisings are being organised. So, my little over-priced bottle of soap is doing its bit to change the world.
It is perverse to think that tools like Facebook, Twitter and free email services like Gmail, which have arguably done more than any other to facilitate the political activism of the last decade, are almost entirely reliant on paid advertising. Social media and web 2.0 is the contemporary soapbox. But corporate influence is no longer limited to the label on the orator’s crate. Every 20 minutes on Facebook, 3 million messages are sent. Almost half of 18- to 34-year-old Facebook users check the site when they wake up; 28 percent before they get out of bed.
The new “public spaces” we have created online are an increasingly important part of our everyday lives and our societies’ shared infrastructure; but they are also privately run. And the implications of this go far beyond attempts to influence which brand of soap we purchase.
There is no greater threat to the internet’s potential to radically enhance our public sphere than the corporate colonisation of cyberspace. Yes, the internet makes accessible more information from a wider array of sources and to a greater number of people more easily than any instrument of information and communication in history. As a global, decentralised, two-way medium that is not owned by any one corporation or government, it allows for relatively unfettered public communication.
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With so much material available, what matters most is what gets our attention online. Publishing views on the internet is easy; getting them noticed is not.
The established branding, strong customer loyalty, extensive product lines, and sizeable marketing budgets of the large media and communication corporations, combined with their capital to develop and buy user applications, websites and online content, mean that the news and information sources that now dominate the internet replicate the homogeneity and biases of the offline news media. Widely used corporate portals and search ranking systems also grant predominance to this same relatively small number of sources.
The internet’s intrinsically democratising effect is being stunted by a corporate colonisation that is serving to re-concentrate power into the hands of the few.
This corporate domination of attention not only marginalises many voices, but also frames internet users as consumers rather than as citizens. Some portals don’t even distinguish advertorials from news, marketing links are mixed in with news links and pop-up adverts distract the reader and obscure the news story until removed; the reader becomes simply a consumer to be targeted. Online discussion forums increasingly offer the only temporary reprieve from a barrage of consumer-orientated content.
Of course there are exceptions. Go looking for them and you will find thousands of online civil society and independent media spaces where voices largely excluded from dominant discourses are articulating and contesting diverse positions and mobilising for positive on- and offline action. Some democratic initiatives have developed not-for-profit online portals and search tools specifically for making visible these kinds of sources online. And in South Korea, for example, the pioneering citizen-based participatory news site OhmyNews draws an estimated 2 million readers, and 15 million hits, daily.
But the scope of these efforts is limited. There is no doubt that we need to work harder to broaden public understanding and debate about why – and how – we can limit the corporate monopolisation of the internet and how we can mobilise support for policies and initiatives that would de-marginalise critical communication online.
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Perhaps we can begin to make small gains simply by becoming more aware of the power that the dominant consumer-orientated online model gifts us, should we harness it intelligently. So, while it may be counterintuitive, we need to harness the power we hold as consumers. This remains true in flourishing democracies as in more authoritarian regimes.
Following revelations in 2012 that global coffee chain Starbucks was paying less than its fair share of tax in the UK, a barrage of consumer outrage online quickly elicited a statement of contrition from the chain and a pledge to pay more tax in the coming years. Offline protests were minimal; the pressure, the calls for boycott and the damage to the Starbucks brand was predominantly played out online.
There has never been a more important time for civil society to step into this crucial role of reframing the internet as more than simply a profit centre. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) newly proposed rules around net neutrality remain open for public comment until July 15. Should these rules come into force in their current form, the open internet as we know it would become a thing of the past. Able to charge extra fees to content companies like Google for preferential treatment, internet service providers would be able to create a two-tiered service with fast lanes for those who could afford them and dirt tracks for the rest of us. They would be able to block or slow down websites and applications and they would be free to monitor everything we do and say online and sell the information to the highest bidder.
If we are to protect the internet as an emancipatory and empowering tool, it must be a space in which we are afforded our basic rights. Access to the minutest details of our private lives has become the price we pay for connectivity. Already, the risks of this are complex; should the forces of capitalism succeed in obliterating net neutrality, they will become greater still.
International law recognises that we do not surrender our right to privacy and freedom of expression in privately-owned spaces. And we need to push for these principles – the fundamental tenets of our social contract – to be carried over to new technologies. We need to move the debate beyond the fine-tuning of privacy controls to include an exploration of exactly what we understand to be public and private space in the 21st century.
Already we have witnessed the internet’s remarkable power to help us mobilise nationally and transnationally, to engage us in radical new forms of direct democracy unthinkable even a decade ago. But if we are to enable its potential as a space for critical communication, the lifeblood of any strong democratic society, we must counteract the stranglehold of corporate monopoly. So while my Fairy Liquid might be helping to change the world, it’s the cost I’m worried about.
Dr Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance.
Follow him on Twitter: @civicusSG