Review of Curran, Fenton and Freedman’s Misunderstanding the Internet

Misunderstanding the Internet_book cover

Here’s my review of James Curran, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman’s Misunderstanding the Internet, published in the European Journal of Communication (28.3) in 2013.

 

“The final, definitive version of this paper was published in the European Journal of Communication (28.3) in 2013 by SAGE Publications Ltd (http://online.sagepub.com), All rights reserved. © [Simon Dawes]”

For those who have access and would like to read this ‘Version of Scholarly Record’, go here: http://ejc.sagepub.com/content/28/3

For everyone else, here you go…(this is the version that was accepted, prior to proofing)

 

 

James Curran, Natalie Fenton and Des Freedman

Misunderstanding the Internet, Oxon: Routledge, 2012; 208pp.; £23.99

 

Reviewed by: Simon Dawes, Nottingham Trent University

 

 

In this book, three prominent UK political economists of the media come together to offer a critique of the role of the internet in society in terms of its relation to democracy, power, resistance and the public sphere, and to outline their own set of proposals for its future regulation.

 

The overall argument of the book is a call to quell technologically deterministic accounts of the internet with a political economic account of its social context and the ways in which the technology is constituted by its design, funding, regulation and use. Each author has two chapters in which to make this case with regards to different aspects of the internet: James Curran’s chapters reassess the history of the internet so far in terms of its impact on society and democracy; Des Freedman’s focus on its control and regulation; and Natalie Fenton’s discuss social media and radical politics; while a co-written conclusion doubles as an introduction to the book’s structure and a manifesto for media reform and the public interest regulation of the internet.

 

Taking issue with technologically-centred predictions about the transformative potential of the internet, Curran begins the book with a refutation of four general claims (made for the most part in the 1990s) about how the technology would change society by examining them in light of examples that show how, in practice, ‘different contexts produce different outcomes’ (25). He argues, firstly, that the internet has failed to transform the economy because the ‘underlying dynamics of unequal competition that make for corporate concentration remain unchanged’ (179). Secondly, that it has failed to promote global understanding or lead inexorably to the formation of an international public opinion because its influence is ‘filtered through the structures and processes of society’ (9, 179); a society which is as unequal as it is affected by state (11) and market (49) censorship. Thirdly, that it has failed to revitalise democracy because both its energising of activism from below and its provision of e-government from above are fettered by political disaffection, the weakened democratic power of nation-states, and the unaccountability of transnational corporations in deregulated global markets (17). And finally, that it has failed to augur a renaissance in journalism because incumbent news organisations have taken advantage of the internet to extend their domination across technologies (19, 179).

 

Curran then gives an account of the history of the internet, from the pre-market phase of its military and scientific beginnings in the US, through the influence of the counterculture movement and the European public service tradition, to the current phase of global antagonism between commercialisation and state censorship (197). Curran’s intention is to offer a revisionist version of internet history, that takes into account the less idealistic and non-Western trajectories of its more recent evolution (35). Amongst summaries of the internet’s technical development, the military logic behind its non-hierarchical network structure, the scientific community’s formative influence on the openness and reciprocity of networking protocols, and Tim Berners-Lee’s public-spirited (and publicly-funded) development of the world wide web at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), Curran makes a point of emphasising the less familiar role of state sponsorship in subsidising the research and development of the fledgling US computer industry, and state shepherding of the public internet to market with the lifting of the ban on its commercial use in 1991 and its ultimate privatisation in 1995 (37). Although the commercialisation of the internet may have seemed initially to extend the benefits of this open public space by making it more user-friendly, Curran argues that the US state-coordinated marketisation of the internet has served over time to detract from its fundamental nature (41) and limit its emancipatory potential (42), introducing economic and metadata controls and new technologies of surveillance into what is now a predominantly commodified space (45).

 

While this ‘chronicle of contradiction’ (48) has led to a struggle (most visibly in the West) between a commercial regime and the open source movement, more recent instances of state censorship (particularly in the East) have reminded us that the internet is far from uncontrollable (49-50). Rebuffing claims that the Arab Spring was a social media revolution, for instance, Curran prefers to emphasise instead the ability of those states under threat (as well as China and Iran) to monitor citizens via the internet and to even shut down internet access within their territorial borders. Ultimately, Curran’s objective is to demonstrate that both market censorship (corporate concentration, commercial surveillance and strengthened intellectual property law) and state censorship (restrictive licensing, state surveillance and the ability to pull the plug) are now undermining the freedom many celebratory accounts promised of the internet (59), while the commonsensical distinction between state and market may not be as clear-cut or as epistemologically useful as it may at first seem.

 

Implicit in such celebratory accounts (whether commercial, journalistic, academic or political) of the transformative potential of the internet is a free market model, with which Freedman takes issue in his section of the book, arguing that self-regulation amounts to little more than corporate regulation, and highlighting the social and economic distortions brought about by a laisser-faire approach, even in the supposedly separate sphere of open access (180). Despite the rhetorical bifurcation of the internet between the commodified and proprietorial sphere of the capitalist marketplace, and the non-commodified and non-proprietorial sphere of the open source commons, Freedman emphasises the blurred boundary between the two (83), insisting, drawing upon the work of Christian Fuchs (2009), that their dialectical entanglement involves always the latter’s subsumption by the former (84). Pointing out that much of what seems free is actually paid for at another point of entry (81), either by ‘us as consumers’ or by others buying information about ‘us as commodities’, he qualifies the participatory potential of the active prosumer with the coincidence of the simultaneously cost-effective generation of content by prosumers for corporate others (82-83), reminding us that the premise of ‘wikinomics’ is ‘to use the principles of open source in order to invigorate and renew market institutions’ (83). As the authors of that particular treatise argue, ‘without the commons, there could be no private enterprise’ (Tapscott and Williams, 2008, cited in Curran et al, 2012: 83). Far from constituting a threat to corporations or offering an alternative to a market model based on private property, therefore, open source and peer-to-peer production actually constitute a challenge to corporations to increase productivity and achieve growth by learning how to incorporate collaborative principles into the pre-existing model of the self-regulated market (84).

 

They also constitute a challenge to the liberal democratic governments around the world that uphold this model (103). Despite recent examples of governments reasserting their sovereignty over the administration of the internet, often via complex governance structures that combine market liberalism with state supervision (113), they continue to rely on legal and economic arrangements that remain prone to corporate takeover and that lack any engagement with public interest, citizenship or democracy (109). Instead of serving the interests of the public at large, ‘governments, supranational bodies [and] large…companies have sought agreement on terms of trade and custom and practice that best serve them’ (183). Freedman therefore argues for the normative retrieval of the democratic state as guarantor of the public interest (97-98). The internet is not, however, the first technological system to serve both public and private interests. Indeed, Freedman foregrounds the continuities between the regulation of the internet and the ‘re-regulation’ of ‘legacy media’, such as broadcasting and the press, which have also seen their capacity to serve the public interest compromised by the market (116), and where arguments for public interest regulation, independent of both commercial and governmental interests, have had varied impact on public policy.

 

But what about the extent to which online participation feels emancipatory and democratic to the individual users? Arguing against media-centric accounts of social media that obscure the complexity of power relations in society, and that a focus on communication-led sociality serves only to further inscribe the neoliberal production and marketisation of the individualised self, Fenton aims to offer an alternative account of communicational life and the producer/consumer destabilisation that resists succumbing to media fetishism (124-125). She argues that the automatic commodification of content generated by the participation of individually autonomous users as consumer profiles demonstrates how digital citizens are far from being socially or politically autonomous of capital (128-131). That, despite the potential offered by social media for counter-expression, particularly within authoritarian regimes (132), the expansion of mediated space has coincided not with a more general expansion of the public sphere, but with a diminishing range of content, a reduction in areas for public deliberation, and a marginalisation of dissent (131). That moments of individual creativity are nevertheless framed by powerful media actors in a market-dominated culture (135) which remains disconnected from institutions of power (136). And that despite offering a new level of monitorial democracy, social media’s efficacy as a watchdog holding power to account is undermined by the privileging of speed over fact-checking, by the fact that an open internet also provides authority with a greater means of spying on its citizens, and by the internet’s inability to transcend the neoliberal power structure from which it is formed (136-139).

 

In evaluating the ‘radical collective possibilities of online political mobilisation’ (149) beyond the communicative realm of the connected individual, she finds fault as much with the Habermasian account of political dissipation as with the unreflexive praise of multiplicity. Offering a more concrete, political economic critique of, for instance, the ‘connections between Google, Facebook, Twitter, the US State Department and Movements.org’ (157), she warns against the self-defeating emphasis on autonomy (‘an individualistic politics’) and multiplicity (‘a liberal tolerance of difference’) to the extent that its illusion of direct control actually comforts users into inaction (170).

 

Although perhaps liberatory for the individual, Fenton insists that networks are not always democratising for society. Social media, she argues, are more about the individual than the collective, the consumer rather than the citizen, and leisure more than political communication (180). While networked communication expands possibilities for contestation, it simultaneously embeds the interests of the powerful ‘ever more deeply into the ontology of the political’, diverting attention away from corporate influence and access to decision-making structures (142). Fenton’s argument is that social media’s capacity to contribute towards a cultural or social public sphere does not extend to a capacity to form a political one. While the communication of injustice or inequality may express and articulate the dynamics of political environments and increase the prospects of change, it is not enough, she argues, to recast or regenerate the structures that uphold these environments (143) or tackle the transformation of the political and economic system itself (164).

 

Only activities conducted on an internet regulated according to public interest criteria could do that. But the authors argue that, having long been regulated ‘by governments, markets, code and communities’ (181), the internet is now at a critical moment at which its collaborative and communicative potential is in danger of being enclosed and privatised. They thus propose in their conclusion what Costas Lapavitsas has called ‘market-negating regulation’; that is, regulation which serves the public at large, as opposed to the ‘market-conforming regulation’, which is little more than the compromise reached between powerful public and private interests (182-183). To achieve this, they propose a series of redistributive public interventions, such as: the prioritising of an increase in sources of information over an increase in speed; infrastructures constructed as public utilities for citizens; the protection of open public spaces; the public funding of sites to deal with major issues of public concern; and the circulation of content on networks regulated in the public interest (183-184). These interventions are to be performed by publicly accountable bodies established at arm’s length from the state, publicly funded, in the spirit of the proposed Tobin Tax on global financial transactions, by taxes and levies on private communications businesses (they refer to this as the Cerf Tax, in honour of Vince Cerf, one of the ‘fathers of the internet’). After all, if there is agreement that an open internet is a priority, they argue, then ‘those who are benefiting from the demand for information and communication [should] make a full contribution to building and supporting such an environment’ (184).

 

While these proposals could have been fleshed out a bit further for the more practically-minded policy scholar, the historian of media regulation might be more interested to hear about how such proposals for the regulation of the internet (and such critiques of the internet’s role in society) differ from those proposals and critiques that have already been written about by (these and other) political economists with regards to other media. A sceptic, finding the arguments outlined in the book all too familiar, may argue that, in their efforts to distance themselves from technologically deterministic accounts of the internet, the authors have hindered their appreciation of the ways in which this particular medium is distinctive from broadcasting and the press. Or one could argue the opposite and criticise the implication that the privileging of speed over fact-checking, for instance, is somehow unique to the internet, when this has been a problem a long time in the making and one only exacerbated by technological advances. Other readers may be disappointed that this book fails to transcend the debate between those accounts that hail the emancipatory potential of the internet, and those that critique its capacity for neoliberal capture. Nevertheless, Curran, Fenton and Freedman manage in this short introduction to the internet to offer not only a comprehensive overview of the literature in both camps, but also a unique contribution to the latter that culminates in a timely and coherent call to arms for regulatory reform.

 

 

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