To be GOVERNED is to kept in sight, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, estimates, valued, censured, commanded…at every transaction [to be] noted, registered, enrolled, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished.
It is…to be placed under contribution, trained, ransomed, exploited, monopolized, extorted, squeezed, mystified, robbed; then at the slightest resistanced…to be repressed, fined, despised, harassed, tracked, abused, clubbed, disarmed, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, outraged, dishonoured (Proudhon , 1923: 294)
The above quote, part of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 19th century revolutionary demands, leaves little to the imagination. Proudhon’s anti-establishment writings launch a remorseless assault on government – or, more accurately, governance – as anti-freedom and an inherent curtailment of both individual agency and collective political solidarity. Given Proudhon’s vehement opposition to any form of governance and his nationality it seems apt to use his quote in the context of last week ‘s eG8 Summit – precursor to the G8 summit proper – at the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. The conference, which was proposed by President Sarkozy but organised by multi-national corporations such as Orange, Google, eBay and Microsoft, considered the introduction of ‘premature regulation’ in an effort to ‘civilise’ the internet. The central message of the conference for internet activists and civil society groups, according to President Sarkozy, was that:
Although technology in and of itself is neutral, and must remain so, the way that Internet is used in not neutral…The universe that you represent is not a parallel universe which is free of rules of law or ethics of any of the other fundamental principles that must govern and do govern the social lives of our democratic states.
Such comments have already been heavily criticised both by prominent Internet figures such as Mark Zuckerberg and Internet activist organisations such as La Quadrature du Net . The latter group’s co-founder and spokesperson, Jérémie Zimmerman has already accused the eG8 as “the smokescreen for dangerous threats on citizens’ freedoms and attempts to take over our beloved universal online space”. Internet politics, Zimmerman argues, is at a critical juncture:
The internet is a space where we meet, speak, create, educate ourselves and organize. However, as we are at a turning point in early web history, it could either become a prime tool for improving our societies, knowledge and culture, or a totalitarian tool of surveillance and control.
Irrespective of Zimmerman’s hyperbole, his comments are undoubtedly accurate. In very recent years, the Internet has been transformed from a seemingly disparate cloud of individual users, to a vital tool for social and political movements. The first indications of the level of political conflict in post-election Iran and this year’s Arab Spring came via Twitter and YouTube (though some have argued social media’s role in the Arab Spring has been ‘overplayed’) and in argubly the largest political scandal of recent years, Julien Assange’s Wikileaks published a mountain of classified information. Activists and political campaigners use social networking sites as their primary means of communication and protest.
However, what Zimmerman and others omit from their arguments against Sarkozy’s “civilisation” of the Internet is that further consideration on how to ‘manage’ the Internet is necessary in order to protect political freedoms. It is ironic indeed that one of the loudest complaints against Internet regulation on the basis of government intervention as a threat to personal privacy has been made by Mark Zuckerberg, whose company’s record of respecting privacy is sketchy at best. Zuckerberg’s crusade against any form of explicit regulation of Internet space at eG8 loses substantial ethical creedence when counterweighted against his statements about Facebook’s use of “social design” to shape users’ social networks. According to Zuckerberg, the level and depth of personal information revealed is entirely up to the individual and each person’s Internet experience is ultimately decided by their own hand.
This may all seem fair enough but the reality of the Internet experience that people like Zuckerberg and Eric Schmidt (Google’s CEO who described Sarkozy’s aspiration as “stupid”) is far from an arena controlled wholly by the individual. Though both would vehemently deny that their respective companies have made any attempt to control personal freedom or to condition behaviour, their use of targeted advertising and their website’s processes have been described as symptomatic of the rise of ‘gamification’ or ‘exploitationware’ . This concept – made famous by Seth Priebatsch – refers to the ‘use-and-rewards’ systems used by Internet companies to sustain their client group (for example more internet storage, easier connections with your friends etc) in order to position themselves at the centre of people’s ‘social game’. In engaging in such practices, large Internet companies effectively control people’s behaviour. Given this, the possibility of regulation seems significantly less invasive and Zuckerberg’s campaign against ‘civilising’ the Internet becomes more about his company’s gains than protecting the rights of the individual.
That said, it would be equally wrong to say that the campaign to ‘civilise’ the Internet was free from ulterior motives. Ardent supporters of further regulation include both Rupert Murdoch and his son, NewsCorp’s James Murdoch. The latter has been a fierce critic of Google and Schmidt in particular, calling on the company and its CEO to condemn piracy as the crime it is and recognise that the Internet “can no longer be free”. Though Sarkozy referenced examples such as the attacks on web forum’s for epileptics by hacktivists from 4Chan (a precursor of the organisation Anonymous) and the blanket censorship of the Internet by the Syrian government in order to silence political protest as arguments for further regulation, the crowd he addressed was largely made up of representatives from organisations more concerned with Internet piracy and copyright. A notable manifestation of this conflict was during one session on copyright, following the criticisms of EFF founder and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow that intellectual property attempted to “own” free speech, Jim Gianopulos countered that “speech is free but movies cost money”.
Given that David Cameron has already stated that the UK is going to resist the type of the regulation Sarkozy is demanding, wide-scale intervention on an international scale is unlikely in the near future. Nevertheless, the eG8 summit may have opened a can of worms, highlighting the contradictory interests operating on both sides of the debate. What is clear for now is that this is not an issue that can be dismissed as easily as some would like. While Proudhon may have despaired of such a discussion entirely, the role of the Internet in international politics means that it might not be so easy to reject completely.