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The gift of the net

About the author
Richard Barbrook is a senior lecturer in the school of social sciences, humanities and languages at the University of Westminster, London.

In his series of essays for openDemocracy, The new information ecosystem: cultures of anarchy and closure, Siva Vaidhyanathan issues a stark warning: watch out! Big Business and Big Government are conspiring to take over the internet.

These vast bureaucracies, so the argument goes, are using technological controls and legal repression to try to close down the opportunities for self-expression opened up by the new communications system. Their totalitarian ambitions threaten not only our political freedoms, but also the advance of scientific knowledge and the dissemination of artistic creativity.

Evidence for Siva Vaidhyanathan’s analysis is easy to find. The music and film industries are experimenting with software which aims to protect their intellectual property from unauthorised copying: Digital Rights Management, file watermarking and user tracking. Since these technological fixes might not work, their corporate lobbyists have convinced American and European politicians to tighten the copyright laws: the United States’s Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the European Union’s Copyright Directive.

This drive for corporate control over the net has fed off the paranoia whipped up by the George W. Bush regime’s ‘war on terror’. Surveillance not freedom is now the order of the day. For years, we’ve been assured that the net couldn’t be censored or regulated. In his series, Siva warns against such complacency. If we’re not careful, the freedoms of the net could be lost forever. Anarchy must win its struggle against oligarchy.

Divided by a single language

Europeans face a major obstacle when reading Siva’s essay: Americans talk about politics in different ways than Europeans do. Despite our close connections, the two continents are divided by their ideological rhetoric. Most notably, reflecting their Puritan heritage, Americans love to present problems in terms of dramatic black and white alternatives. As George W. Bush keeps on saying, you’re either one of the good guys or you’re with the evil-doers.

Although he doesn’t agree with the US president’s reactionary politics, Vaidhyanathan’s analysis of the net is also constructed around a choice between absolute opposites: anarchy or oligarchy. Either you’re fighting for individual freedom or you’re collaborating with bureaucratic tyranny.

Just to add to the confusion, Americans also use different terminology from Europeans in their political debates. Social democracy is called liberalism and, in turn, neo-liberalism is renamed libertarianism. So when Vaidhyanathan talks about anarchism, this doesn’t mean that he shares the views of a Black Bloc rioter or a Berlin squatter. In the US, European terms like socialism and communism remain taboo even though the cold war is long gone. Instead Americans tend to use anarchism to cover all the different positions within the radical left. The word which for us describes a sectarian ideology is for them a symbol of political pluralism. Across the Atlantic, anarchism can mean anything to the left of the Democrats.

When the British prime minister, speaking to the US Congress, sounds like an eastern European vassal worshipping his Soviet masters in the bad old days of the cold war, it is tempting for Europeans to emphasise the rhetorical differences between the two continents. It is easy to deplore the lack of ambiguity in the American style of political debating, or to protest against the limitations on intellectual enquiry imposed by an idiosyncratic terminology.

For instance, Bill Thompson chides Siva for not appreciating how a social democratic government could play a positive role within the net. An analysis centred upon the irreconcilable opposition between anarchism and oligarchy assumes that all forms of state intervention must be malign. Yet almost everyone believes that the government has a duty to act against the online crimes of paedophiles and fraudsters.

By opposing all types of regulation, Siva is incapable of contributing to the crucial debate over how to improve the legal framework for the net. Echoing Bill Thompson, Sandy Starr also questions the American enthusiasm for ideological absolutism. Anarchism might not always be better than oligarchy within the net. As an example, Siva’s emphasis on anyone’s ability to publish online lacks any thought about what’s being produced. Quantity doesn’t necessarily lead to quality.

Beyond political polarisation

Bill Thompson and Sandy Starr both agree that the debate over the future of the net can’t be posed as a polarised choice between anarchy or oligarchy. Because of Europe’s murderous past, dialectics on this continent now come in many shades of grey. Ironically, their distaste for Siva’s rhetorical style disguises their political closeness. Terminology has become a barrier to understanding.

For instance, Bill Thompson attacks Siva as if he was a dogmatic European anarchist who opposes any compromise with electoral politics. Yet, in reality, he’s one of those pragmatic American anarchists who’ll happily vote for socially progressive candidates. Vaidhyanathan lacks Bill Thompson’s faith in the potential of social democratic governments not for any ideological reasons, but because there hasn’t been a left-wing American administration for decades.

Similarly, Sandy Starr caricatures Siva Vaidhyanathan as one of those dotcom gurus who claims that all will be well with the world once everyone is a blogger. But in reality, Siva takes a quite different position. As the title of his upcoming bookThe Anarchist in the Library – suggests, Siva conceives of the net as an online version of the public library. Living in a country where right-wing populism and chauvinist nationalism dominate the airwaves, it’s not surprising that he thinks that intelligent debates and dissident opinions are much more likely be found on-line. Just like Sandy Starr, Siva Vaidhyanathan is also arguing for quality on the net.

Free trade and free speech

These differences over style thus hide a consensus on the substance of the debate. What unites Vaidhyanathan and his critics is an emphasis on the political and cultural implications of the net. New technologies and new laws are supported or condemned depending upon their impact on our democratic liberties and civilised values. For instance, their discussion of copyright enforcement within the net revolves around such terms as free speech and artistic creativity.

However, if you read the propaganda of the software, music and film industries, these noble causes take second place to much baser motivations. These corporate elites learnt long ago how to co-opt political dissidents and cultural innovators. What they really fear is anything which threatens their control over the information economy.

For decades, the convergence of media, telecommunications and computing has enhanced corporate power. As demonstrated by the international financial markets, new information technologies underpinned the triumph of neo-liberalism. During the dotcom bubble, it almost went without question that the primary purpose of the Net was making money. Academics and hobbyists might have developed the new communications system, but only large corporations could realise its full potential.

In recent years, working with networked computers has become an almost ubiquitous experience. In the office and the home, the net can easily be equated with e-commerce. Not surprisingly, the sellers of media products thought that they would be among the main beneficiaries of the new on-line marketplace. Drawing on a long tradition of liberal theory, they could demonstrate how their economic self-interest benefited the whole community. Technologies and laws which protect intellectual property were the preconditions of liberty on the net.

On this view, free trade equates with free speech. In his series, Siva Vaidhyanathan questions such an elite orthodoxy. Digital Rights Management and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are condemned for limiting rather than enhancing individual freedom. Anarchy (the absence of controls) is much more likely to extend free speech than oligarchy (the enforcement of hierarchy). Despite their disagreements with him, Bill Thompson and Sandy Starr also focus on the grand principles of liberalism and democracy. Political diversity on the net would be encouraged by more enlightened legislators. Online creativity would be improved by better-educated bloggers. Free speech is much more than free trade.

The growing crisis of control

This concentration on the political and cultural potential of the net rejects the crude economism of the dotcom boosters. However, this approach also skirts around the growing crisis of control within the information economy.

For instance, Siva Vaidhyanathan and Bill Thompson argue over whether it’s possible to use new technologies to prevent unauthorised copying over the net. What both of them take for granted is that online piracy is primarily a technological phenomenon. Yet there is something very bizarre about the music industry persecuting its core market: the cool kids who set trends among their peer group. Sending around the police to seize their computers just shows how desperate its corporate bosses have become.

Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation compares the music industry’s campaign against file-sharing over the net with the US government’s failing ‘war on drugs’. Although some individuals can be punished, it is impossible in modern societies to prevent mutually beneficial acts between a large number of consenting adults. Technologies and laws can slow down, but not reverse social evolution.

The hardware industry is already benefiting from the new dispensation. While making all the right noises about protecting intellectual property, manufacturers carry on selling the machines which make copying information ever easier. Despite the protests of the media moguls, copyright will never be rigidly enforced in the digital era.

Crucially, as shown by the recent rise in CD sales in England, unrestricted MP3 file-sharing doesn’t necessarily mean commercial disaster for information producers. The legitimate version can co-exist with the unauthorised copy. But the media corporations are extremely reluctant to abandon their struggle against net. More profits don’t compensate for less control. For the ‘war on copying’ is not just about protecting intellectual property. What is at stake is the balance of power within the information economy.

The commodity and the gift

Over last two centuries, collective labour has increasingly been organised by markets and managers. Making information has become just like producing any other good or service. But, as the copyright laws demonstrate, cultural artefacts have never been exactly the same as physical objects. The commodification of information has always depended upon legal restrictions on its use after sale. In turn, these privileges for producers have been balanced by allowing the expropriation of intellectual property for research, educational or artistic purposes. Even at the high point of liberalism, information was never monopolised by markets and managers. Free speech isn’t just free trade, but also fair use.

For decades, media capitalists were convinced that new technologies would end the ambiguous status of intellectual property. Information must become an unalloyed commodity. Much to their horror, the reverse has happened. The convergence of media, telecommunications and computing has culminated in our contemporary ‘copy and paste’ culture.

It is no surprise that the net was invented by academics and hobbyists. Big business wasted many millions on developing commercial versions of computer-mediated-communications. But they were never able to provide the killer application of the net: free information. In contrast, both academics and hobbyists have for a long-time organised their collective labour through the gift economy. Information is for sharing not selling. Because of its origins within the university system, it was almost inevitable that the net was initially designed to facilitate the gift economy.

When the dotcom boom started, most pundits assumed that this unconventional method of organising collective labour would soon disappear from the online world. As if to confirm these predictions, many of the most popular services of today’s net are provided by commercial operations. But, at the same time, the on-line gift economy has also undergone an exponential growth. As the music industry has discovered, the commodification of the net isn’t a foregone conclusion. Most people benefit far more from sharing information than trading it. Free speech needs not only free trade, but also free gifts.

In their debate, Siva Vaidhyanathan and his critics have concentrated on the political and cultural implications of the net. Will we be allowed to say what we want on the net? How can the online world be regulated in our common interest? Will our virtual creations contain anything worthy of other people’s time and attention?

The two sides might disagree over the rhetorical style of the debate, but not its focus on abstract principles. Yet, only a few years ago, the net was being hailed as the pioneer of the ‘new economy’: a global unregulated virtual marketplace.

Ironically, the slogan was more accurate than the neo-liberal fantasy which was attached to it. Alongside conventional institutional structures, less familiar ways of working have also flourished on the net. The newest thing about the ‘new economy’ turned out to be the gift economy. Far from being overwhelmed by the dotcom bubble, this academic and hobbyist form of collective labour has produced some of the most interesting projects associated with the net in recent years. When Siva Vaidhyanathan talks about a struggle between oligarchy and anarchy, this is a more refined way of describing the commodity’s confrontation with the gift.

In their propaganda, the software and media monopolists emphasise the loss of revenue from unauthorised copying. But their greatest fear is having less and less control over the creative process.

For instance, Microsoft tolerates the bootlegging of its products in developing countries because otherwise local computer users would switch to open source programmes. Similarly, the music multinationals worry that the MP3 phenomenon has shown up-and-coming musicians how to reach a global audience without having to sign an oppressive record deal.

To make matters worse, commercial rivals are collaborating with the gift economy when it serves their interests. For instance, IBM bundles open source software with some its products and Apple advertises its computers as tools for bypassing the music industry. When Bill Thompson and Sandy Starr question Siva Vaidhyanathan’s implacable dialectics, they’re reflecting an online world where one part of the oligarchy is gleefully profiting from the difficulties of another section. The commodity coexists with the gift on the net.

The net from fear to freedom

Even if his unsubtle dialectics are questionable, Siva Vaidhyanathan’s warning is still timely. We should be concerned that a small minority of rich and powerful people are trying to restructure the net in their own interest. They are advocates of second-rate technology and of ill-conceived legislation – and far too many politicians are persuaded by their schemes.

But at the same time, we need to realise the deep absurdity of their ambitions. For instance, the music industry wants MP3s to be replaced by digital files which are not only less manipulable than even vinyl records, but also in contravention of the fair use sections of copyright laws.

If this technology had existed in the past, it would have been impossible to invent disco, hip-hop, dancehall or house music!

Above all, this plan rests on the assumption that the gift economy is only a temporary phenomenon within the net. Yet the reason why this form of computer-mediated-communications triumphed over its rivals was because people want to be creators as well as consumers. This is why politicians who support draconian copyright laws are looking more and more like relics from another age. Busting people for swapping MP3s just proves that the establishment just does not understand.

Enforcing bad laws brings the whole legal system into disrepute. As shown in recent cases, the public instinctively sympathises with the person who is supposed to be condemned for their crimes. Since the market economy can thrive alongside the gift economy, the current technological and legal assault on the net lacks popular legitimacy. Why fix it if it isn’t broken?

This means that we shouldn’t simply campaign against dull technology and stupid legislation. What is also needed is a positive vision of what can be achieved with innovative machines and intelligent laws.

Ever since the beginnings of modernity, free speech has been championed as a fundamental right of all citizens. Yet, for most of the population, this concept has been a piety rather than a reality. Big government and big business have long monopolised the media. But, ever since the advent of the net, freedom of expression for all no longer seems like a utopian dream. We can conceive of a society where making your own media is not just possible, but also a mass phenomenon. Sharing knowledge could become much more important than selling information.

As well as improving our politics and culture, the gift economy of the net should also be the inspiration for changes across all sectors of production. Democracy in the virtual world is needed to deepen democracy in the material world. We have only just begun to explore the possibilities of the net.


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